Pardon my paranoia and skepticism about modern technology, but do we even know how much personal information is being gathered about our online activities? I ask because I don’t see the question being asked too often and the answer might be enlightening if not scary.
What got me to think about this subject is an article I read about the popular Baidu Browser on Windows and Android. Researchers found all kinds of personal data was being transferred from the user’s devices back to Baidu servers, unencrypted or easily decryptable, including GPS coordinates, search engine keywords, URLs visited within the browser, nearby wireless networks, and even the users’ IMEI numbers.
We’re not talking Safari or Chrome or Firefox here, but you get the idea. First of all, our devices contain massive amounts of personal information that most of us would not want to divulge or share with others (browser history, GPS location, nearby Wi-Fi networks, not to mention everything else we store on Mac, iPhone, iPad) yet there are seemingly innocuous applications that do just that and completely without our knowledge.
Mac users have the benefits of firewall control and port detection in a popular app called Little Snitch which blocks an app’s access– any app, including Apple’s own apps which are built-in to OS X– to or from the Mac. I’ve used Little Snitch and recommend it to my paranoid Mac friends, but the app carries some weight. There is so much information being transmitted from your Mac to who knows where that monitoring all the connections is both confusing and tiresome.
We like to think of Apple as our benevolent protector, a company with no vested financial interest in capturing personal information, but that cannot be said for Google and Chrome or Mozilla and Firefox, both of which make money by monitoring our online activities. The question is, “What do they gather from us, and what do they do with the information?”
I don’t think that anyone is actively monitoring all that tracking. Here’s an example.
A couple of weeks ago I was at home browsing the web on Safari on my Mac, looking for backup hard drives, NAS drives, and other options in the hopes I could create a local iCloud for me and my parents. I use the Cookie app on my Mac which deletes cookies and browser history after Safari is closed, and I close it after every use so cookies do not remain in Safari (or Chrome or Firefox). For a week afterwards, every time I browsed the web I was inundated with advertisements for online backups, disk drive backup solutions, backup apps, NAS drives, and other cloud storage options.
Since the cookies had been deleted after every browser session, how did Google and other advertisers know what I was looking for? It was not my browser history, it was their history of my browser history which had been used to determine what advertisements might entice me to purchase a product.
How is that not scary?
Early last fall I installed a tracking utility called Ghostery on my Mac. Ghostery doesn’t track you. It tracks those who track you. Think of it as an early warning system mashed into an ad blocker (because most tracking is done through advertising). Ghostery pops up an innocuous list of tracking mechanisms on the webpage you visit while browsing in Safari (it may work in Chrome and Firefox; just haven’t tried it there).
The results should scare you.
My site, PixoBebo, uses only Google AdSense ads (not even Google Analytics, which also tracks your online usage) so you won’t see much more than a DoubleClick or Google AdSense notice in the Ghostery box. But even those two can spawn a dozen or more other tracking mechanisms which collect data and store it somewhere, and may take up several megabytes of bandwidth, even though my site weighs barely 100k total.
Now, try Ghostery on iMore or AppleInsider or almost any other Apple oriented website. The results are astonishing. We are being tracked to a degree that should only raise your paranoia threat level a few notches and leave you wondering about the answers to these questions. “Who is tracking us? What are they doing with the data? How can that data impact us while we’re online?”
We are being watched, but I don’t think we fully appreciate how much we’re being watched, and tracked, and then hounded by unscrupulous advertisers and others.