Why you should care
Watch your back: Your hard-fought privacy is at stake.
The house is pitch-black, minus the harsh glare of your computer screen. The windows rattle, the floor creaks, your neck hair bristles. Yes, someone is secretly watching you.
But you don’t have a stalker -– at least not the old-fashioned kind. The spy is your internet.
At least 70 percent of the world’s most popular websites are tracking you.
That’s a 700 percentage increase, up from 10 percent in 1996, according to a study from the University of Washington. For most netizens, the creeping comes as no surprise, with targeted ads on Facebook and Google hitting your hidden fetishes on the nose. But now, you can finally put your sneaking suspicions to rest with cold, hard evidence, says Franziska Roesner, a computer science professor at the University of Washington. “People have an increasing sense that we’re being watched online” — according to the study, the last 20 years have seen a sevenfold increase in third-party tracking on sites like Amazon and CNN, with tracking tools that keep tabs on your every move online and complete dossiers on who you are as a person for advertisers to leverage later on. Rest assured, that “paranoia” is not all in your head, says Roesner.
The internet is definitely watching you, now more than ever. And if the trend continues, no part of your life will be private — unless you’re wealthy — as Christopher Soghoian points out in his TED Talk above. If you assumed the internet was egalitarian, then think again: Encryption is available, but more likely for the affluent than others. As a final knife-twist, encryption is a luxury that not everyone can afford. If you followed the back-door controversy earlier this year, you’ll know that Apple iPhones are resistant to even the government’s cracking attempts, but cheaper phones aren’t as safe. Soghoian dubs this schism “the security digital divide,” with “the rich who can afford devices that secure their data by default” on the one hand and “the poor whose devices do very little to protect them” on the other.
Even so, the collection of your personal data isn’t inherently evil, and targeted ads aren’t the end of the world. What’s scary is all the unsuspecting ways your most intimate information could be used against you in the future, says Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. Think identity theft, hacking or even blackmail: “You can certainly see the specter of the data being used in discriminatory ways or to embarrass us,” Polonetsky says.
Sadly, there’s little you can do but keep your guard up. “There’s no perfect solution to make you entirely invisible, other than not browsing the web,” says Roesner. In other words, if you’re reading this, it might already be too late.