Decoding Your Online Trail

You shouldn't have to sacrifice your privacy to surf the web. Here are some tips to protect your personal data.

In 1993, when the internet was still in its infancy, the New Yorker released a cartoon that summed up the anonymity that the online medium granted.

Succinctly, it was captioned:

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

The times were different. The internet was deregulated, a place where nobody knew who was in charge of it. And if you made an online persona, there was very little to connect it with who you were In Real Life (IRL).

As of 2017, the cartoon still stands. You can make an online persona in numerous places, from Reddit to online role-playing games – and other users would be none the wiser as to your real identity. But, your identity is by no means a secret.

The websites you visit, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), online advertisers, cloud services and surveillance agencies can all use your digital footprint to make a highly accurate portrait of you – from your age, gender and nationality to your income, political views and sexual orientation.

Data, which we often input into websites with little thought for their afterlives, is the new oil. And this means that it’s time to reconsider the idea of who we are online. This starts with remaking our digital footprint.

Trace your internet presence

Your user agent is the software acting on your behalf when you visit a website. It’s a combination of data that makes you unique on the internet; the web browser you’re using, the hardware you’re running it on and the version numbers of your operating system and software.

To get an idea of this, sites like whoishostingthis.com allow you to see what user agent you’re displaying to the world. It’s not always an accurate picture, but it does reveal some of the fundamental details you give a website just by visiting it. Websites can decipher the size of your display (which indicates income, to an extent), the time-zone and region you’re in and the exact software variants you’re running. The latter is important data for a malicious website – as it lets them identify whether you’re using older software that has been compromised.

WhoIsHostingThis offers a guide on ‘faking’ your user agent, so you can alter your digital fingerprint to be less specific. Correctly configured, ie by disabling tracking request, installing an adblocker and other privacy extensions, you can make your footprint much lighter. This website, set up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), let’s you test how unique your fingerprint is. It’s worth a visit.

Online, we must remember that more often than not, when the service is free, you are the product. Every site that’s able to figure out who you are based on your fingerprint gleans a little bit more data from your visit – which they can sell to whoever is buying.

Data sells, but who’s buying? A multi-billion dollar industry called database marketing is just one of the clients. Acxiom Corporation, headquartered in Arkansas, has the data of more than 500 million consumers across the world – including almost everyone who uses the internet in the United States. This data includes everything from height, weight, sexual preference, income and anything that can influence your buying preferences. Acxiom’s clients are the companies that sell you your products – from banks, to health insurers to auto manufacturers. Acxiom will sell US citizens this information if you visit Aboutthedata.com and key in your Social Security Number – a process that has been criticized for its opacity.

Political parties are also consumers and enactors of data. A WikiLeaks document from the Podesta Emails, dated May 5, 2015, shows how Acxiom’s CEO suggested a staffer to help Hillary Clinton with demographic data and analytics. But whether Hillary used Axciom’s data is unknown – the Democrats had their own data collection and analysis algorithms, which were later criticized by Clinton herself. Her opponent, on the other hand, made a convenient U-turn on his stance on data.

Donald Trump initially viewed such data analytics as ‘overrated‘. But he later hired Cambridge Analytica to boost his narrative of ‘fake news’ – allowing algorithms to effectively target people who were disdainful of the negative press around Trump. And the role of Facebook in focusing Trump’s data-driven negative campaign on Hillary is now well known.

Your Facebook account, in many ways your all-encompassing online persona, becomes the ground zero for the war to ‘understand’ your identity. Facebook advertisers know a lot about you – every website you visit that has a Facebook ‘like’ button is sending the details off your visit to Facebook. This, in turn, connects you to ‘relevant’ advertisements. To see what exactly Facebook thinks you like, you can visit this link. If you visit the Lifestyle and Culture section, you will see examples of topics Facebook knows you are into – from religious affiliations to ideological beliefs and political preferences.

Finally, for those of you using Android devices, you will also be surprised to see a timeline of all the places you have visited on Google Maps. It’s a feature that users have inadvertently left on – and it tracks every move you’ve made.

Finally, to get a complete picture of your footprint, MyShadow.org has a checklist that shows you exactly what information you have agreed to share by using services such as mobile data, online payments and certain software.

Seeing the above, you may want to start disconnecting your online persona from places it doesn’t need to be it. Having ‘nothing to hide‘ is not the same as having nothing to lose – especially when the data that makes you ‘you’ is up for sale.

Hiding yourself online is an exercise in finding yourself online. You first need to find out what’s there on you to find – searching your usernames, reverse image-searching your profile pictures, and keeping stock of the places you find your personal information uploaded. Wesbites like Tactical tech have provided a guide to this ‘self-doxxing‘.

There are also tools to minimize your footprint. Some have the added benefit of speeding up your internet experience. PrivacyTools.io have listed some of the browser extensions you can add to your internet browsing to prevent cookies and social networks from tracking you across sites. This will not make you anonymous but will make the cargo ship of your data less susceptible to leaks in unwanted places.

In the data-mining age, going digitally native without foresight is a recipe for disaster – you may be hacked, had your identity stolen, duped of finances or personal data or even blackmailed. Each year, we see larger and larger leaks of personal data. The time to become a prudent digital native is now.

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