Search engine providers like Google are making cash by building detailed profiles of your web surfing habits.

There is a slew of technologies they use to track usage, following folks as the hop-skip-and-jump across the world wide web. In this “social networking” world it seems like many people wait until an inevitable crisis before taking even the most rudimentary precautions.

Even then it isn’t always obvious who is prying or how much snooping is going on.

I am not a member (and never plan to be) of many social networking sites, like FaceBook, because of the aggressively antagonistic approach they’ve taken towards maintaining a balance between exposing folks personal data and commercial gain. I vehemently disagree with FaceBook’s Zuckerberg that “the age of privacy is over” and that users should just suck it up and let him and his ilk commoditize our private lives for his personal gain (FaceBook certainly doesn’t offer a compelling enough value proposition for me to willingly trade away more of my privacy).

Even the simplest of activities, asking “questions” of the ‘net, can be used as fodder for the anti-privacy grist mill. For every move to secure folks basic right to that privacy, the industry counters – sometimes with the full complicity of the companies that develop surfing technology (think Micro$loth).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to maintaining individual rights online, has teamed with the Tor project (software to “defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security”), to roll out a new Mozilla Firefox browser extension that encrypts your communication to a variety of services.

click here to encrypt the web

Encrypting communication with Google isn’t the same as eliminating their ability to build a profile of you based on your questions. Instead, encryption will make sure that your ISP (in my case ATT) and any other internet service provider between you and the end-service provider can’t snoop on your traffic and build their own profile of your activities.

Other than Tor, which anonymizes interactions with web-based services, there are a wide variety of additional extensions to Firefox available to combat Google and other service providers snooping.

  • BetterPrivacy – removes “super-cookies” which allow sites to track your wandering across the ‘net
  • Redirect Cleaner – new websites can’t discover what site you linked in from
  • AdBlock Plus – the king of ad blocking extensions
  • NoScript – limits sites use of JavaScript and other technologies to work-around privacy protections.
  • Ghostery – actively blocks tracking by a wide range of advertising tracking companies
  • Tor Button – manages use of TOR network which confounds network-based tracking of ‘net usage

While I expect CitizenWill readers are the kind of folks who wouldn’t casually give away financial or personal information to a complete stranger on the street, it isn’t always obvious how what we do online leaves tracks in the wider world – technology can help protect your privacy, the best protection remains a healthy dose of common sense and “eternal vigilance”.

There are no consistent set of laws that dictate basic privacy protections online, especially when it comes to commercial harvesting of what many of us consider personal information. The minimal expectation is that the “contract” between you and the service provider is clearly posted, easily understood and has provisions for terminating access gracefully.

Read sites TOS (terms of service) and privacy policies – including how they manage and protect your personal information – before entering into that “contract”. Understand what 3rd parties have access to your details, how you can opt out or eliminate what you share online. Determine if the benefits of the service are commensurate with the value you receive (you best know the value of your life’s details).

Finally, even though the rules that govern commercial entities are far from complete and our ability to demand fair treatment quite limited, we can demand basic protections on websites our own government provides.

For instance, Chapel Hill’s (now defunct) Technology Advisory Board, strongly recommended 5 years ago that the Town’s own website had a clear and easily accessible terms of service/privacy policy. As of 2010, that more than reasonable request is not part of the Town’s commitment to serve the public’s interest.

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