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Saturday, April 28th, 2012, 8:59 am

Thoughts on Privacy on the Web

Cookies and cross-site connections help track Internet users in ways far worse than most people realise. People assume that when they visit a particular site then it is this site alone which knows about them. Moreover, they assume that they are logged off and thus offer no identifying details. In reality, things are vastly different and it is much worse when public service sites act as “traps” that jeopardise privacy. A site that I recently looked at (as part of my job) does seem to comply with some of the basic rules, but new advisories are quite strict. To quote: “The UK government has revised the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, which came into force in the UK on 26 May, to address new EU requirements. The Regulations make clear that UK businesses and organisations running websites in the UK need to get consent from visitors to their websites in order to store cookies on users’ computers.”

The BBC coverage of this indicates that “[t]he law says that sites must provide “clear and comprehensive” information about the use of cookies…”

Regulating cookies is not enough. ISPs too can store data about the Web surfer and, as Phorm taught us, they sometimes do. They sell information about people.

In more and more public sites, HTTPS/SSL is supported and cookies remain within the domain that is “root” in the sense that the visitors intended to visit only this one domain (despite some external bits like Twitter timelines in the sidebars/front page. Loading up Twitter.com, even via an API, might help a third party track identities). Shown in the following image is the large number of cookies used when one accesses pages from Google/GMail (even without having a GMail account).

Cookies

Although SSL is now an integral part of this service (since the security breaches that Windows caused), privacy is not assured here. Although they don’t swap cookies across domain visitors, Google’s folks do track the user a great deal and they have many cookies in place (with distant expiry date) to work with.

Information on how Google will use cookies is hard to obtain, and the problem is of course not unique to Google cookies. Most web browsers automatically accept cookies, so it is safe to assume that about 99% of people (or more) will just accept this situation by default. If a site had provided visitors information about cookies, permitted secure connections (secure to a man in the middle) and not shared information about its visitors, contrary to the EU Commission which foolishly wanted to put spyware (Google Analytics) in pages, then there is at least indication of desire to adhere to best practices.

Cookies are not malicious by design as they are necessary for particular features, but to keep people in the dark about the impact of cookies on privacy is to merely assume that visitors don’t care and won’t care about the matter. And that would be arrogant.

To make some further recommendations, privacy should be preserved by limiting the number of direct connection to other sites. Recently, I have been checking the source of some pages to see if there’s any HotLinking that’s unnecessary in public sites, which would be a privacy offense in the sense that it leave visitors’ footprints on another site. Outbound links can help tracking, but only upon clicking. The bigger issues are things like embedded objects that invoke other sites like YouTube. HotLinking, unlike Adobe Trash, cannot result in quite the same degree of spying (Google knows about IP address and individual people). If all files can be copied locally, then the problem is resolved. Who operates linked sites anyway? If it’s a partner of a sister site, then storing files remotely might be fine, but with AWS growing in popularity, Amazon now tracks a lot of sites, e.g. through image hosting.

Sites like Google, Facebook (FB) and Twitter, if linked or embedded onto a Web page, can end up taking a look at who’s online at the site. All it takes from the visitor is the loading of a page, any page for that matter. FB is often criticised for the “like” button too (spyware). JavaScript (JS) has made the spying harder to keep track of; it would be best practice to perhaps offer JS-free pages by default, which limits viewing by a third party assuming those scripts invoke something external. Magpie RSS can help cache copies of remote data locally and then deliver that to the visitor without the visitor having to contact another server when loading up the primary target site. Some sites these days have you contact over 10 different domains per pageload. It’s the downside of mashup, and it extends to particular browser components too (those which “phone home”, but the user usually had more control over them than over known and unpredictable page source). Google and Microsoft uses their cookie to track people at both levels – browser and in-page (sometimes under the guise of “security”, babysitting and warning about “bad” sites you visit). Facebook and Twitter only do the latter and a lot of people don’t welcome that. Facebook, notoriously, profiles people (e.g. are they closeted gay? Is there fertility/erectile dysfunction? Any illnesses the person obsesses over?) and then sells this data to marketing firms and partners, reportedly Microsoft too.

Public sites have different regulations applied to them because many people are required to visit them (e.g. paying taxes), it is not a choice, not to mention the sovereignty principles (e.g. should Google know who and when and how European citizens access their government sites which they themselves paid for?).

In society there is a lot of ransom going on — a lot of ransom people do not regonise or will never be known or reported. This relies primarily in information, unless there is a physical hostage situation (where the prison is at danger of mortal harm). But the bottom line is, those who have the potential to embarrass others possess a lot of power, so there is a fundamental issue of civil liberties at stake. This is why, among several reasons, the TSA agents stripping off (literally or figuratively, or in scanner) is a way of dehumanising and thus weakening the population, normalising indecency and maybe returning us to memories of some human tragedies. The privacy people have is tied to their indignity, worth, and sense of self/mutual respect. Privacy is not a luxury; it is an important tenet of society. Society will suffer if privacy is altogether lost.

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