Just like sex, there is no such thing as truly “safe” web browsing. Every time you connect to a network, whether it’s on your phone, computer or TI-83, you leave yourself vulnerable to tracking and loss of privacy. Every time you tweet, log in, search or post, you present information companies are able to store. Though we can take measures to prevent tracking, as Shah suggests, the only way to truly prevent yourself from being tracked on the web is to abstain from using it at all. Ultimately we must all face this choice. Do we allow ourselves to be tracked — to varying degrees — or do we give up technology for the sake of our privacy? Though online privacy is something that does concern me, I personally feel that, on the whole, the benefits we get from the web are worth the risk.
This is not to say there aren’t reasons to give up using our favorite sites and devices entirely — and there are many reasons. For one, cell phones are invasive and essentially make us trackable 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every call we make produces a call detail record (CDR), which can be used to determine our rough location. It’s even easier with smart phones. GPS data is stored that can pinpoint the room you are standing in. The information gathered from searches is even scarier. Shah mentioned companies like Google — and other search engines and social networks — know your age, gender and location, but the data mined goes much deeper. People are willing to tell Google things they have never told others. Imagine someone struggling with depression or a foot fungus looking up the side effects of his medication. Imagine someone looking up an image of a celebrity crush. Infidelity, crime, fear, hopes, insecurities: Google knows them all. This came to light this year when Target knew a teen was pregnant before her father did, and Target’s knowledge was based solely on purchase history. Imagine what Google, with an extensive list of search queries, could know about you. Even scarier is the fact that Google can know things you don’t even know about yourself. It is not far -fetched to say Google is harnessing the power of predictive analytics for these reasons. Through understanding the search patterns of millions of Americans, it is totally in Google’s power to predict our mental and physical well-being and even know about illnesses that have yet to be diagnosed.
In the face of all this, why use the Internet at all? Though people tend to dwell on the idea that data mining of search queries can reveal our deepest secrets, there is another edge to that sword. For example, Google has worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track outbreaks of various epidemics. By analyzing the search history of various individuals in a given area, Google can predict how a disease is spreading. Armed with that information, the CDC can take action to prevent further spread. Some people are criticized for a willingness to post on the web information they do not share even with their closest friends and family. They are criticized for trusting anonymity over their families. But when these activities are seen not as an association with strangers but an outlet for people looking for a community, the benefits of such information make sense. Imagine a closeted gay teen whose search terms might indicate his orientation. This is a great example because the Internet also provides further assistance to this kind of individual — projects on the Internet, such as the It Gets Better Project have been able to connect communities of individuals from all over the world. It has created support communities never before present. This is only a taste of what the Internet can do.
Shah is right that dealing with online privacy requires more education. Without knowledge about the problems of online privacy, users cannot make informed decisions. But ultimately the decision comes down to you. Are you willing to compromise your privacy to have access to the wealth of data on the web? I am.
Matthew Dolan is a computer science major from Bedford, N.Y. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/18/31141/