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Who Owns Your Web Privacy? July 16, 2008

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Advertising, News, Social Media, Trends, YouTube.
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The Web has much to offer, but you can give away more than just cookies. Information about yourself is on the line. The recent court ruling seeking Youtube viewer-ship records attacks the very underpinnings of the Internet.

Google, which owns YouTube, was ordered by a federal judge to reveal to Viacom, owner of movie studio Paramount and MTV Networks, the viewing habits of everyone who has ever used the popular online video site.

Viacom wanted the information as part of its US$1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube. The YouTube database includes information on when each video gets played. Attached to each entry is each viewer’s unique login ID and the IP address which can often be traced to individuals, their employers or home towns.

So how safe are the repositories of data Internet companies collect about you? Credit card companies know your purchasing habits, telcos know your call and emailing patterns, and search engines know what you sought.

Your whereabouts can be tracked based on your digital footprints. The way Web sites collect information is like having someone follow a shopper around the mall, jotting down what they looked at and bought as they moved from store to store.

NebuAd for example, is facing heat for its targeted advertising system that critics say is invasive and spies on users. With access to an ISP’s network, NebuAd’s system monitors Internet browsing to deliver targeted ads related to search queries and Web sites a person has viewed.

Some ISPs are experimenting with a technology, known as “deep packet inspection,” which allows them to peer into the stream of data coming from a person’s Internet line, a practice critics liken to wiretapping.

And it gets scarier. Although today’s Web is full of masses of data that is easily understandable to humans, most computers cannot make head nor tail of its content. The semantic Web will be even more revealing because it makes the Internet more intelligent.

The semantic web will bring meaning to the jumble of data now on the web. It will suck in information – photographs, calendars, retail information, public records – and process it into a coherent picture of a person, place or thing. It will turn data to information to knowledge and …. POWER.

This is great if you can link real-time prescription data for flu remedies with geographical data to do real-time epidemiology and and fight diseases. But if a company or a hospital build a profile of me, should I be allowed to see what’s in my files?

There are technical and philosophical questions around the issues. If “personally identifiable information” is to be guarded by the law, what constitutes such information? Should a person’s numerical Internet address be considered private?

Until the laws are in place, here’s how to cover our digital trail.


Read privacy policies – although you have little control over what happens to data, you can at least know what gets collected and retained.

Avoid identifying information in user IDs, such as a first initial and full last name. Choosing a moniker that avoids any reference to your name, job or other personal attributes can make tracking more difficult.

Don’t use the same user ID across multiple services. For example, if a user ID is attached to a message board posting that includes your full name, even if the ID itself does not contain your real name, it’s now tied to your name when used elsewhere.

Use anonymising software such as Tor. Such systems relay data packets through many servers to help mask the numeric Internet protocol address identifying your computer.

Privacy advocates say that concerned users also should press service providers to collect less data, retain the information for shorter periods and be more forthcoming about their data policies.

Related read
Protecting Your Privacy on the Internet


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