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​To dream the impossible dream: Privacy on the net

Do you really think you can live a private life on the net? Think again.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Remember Jennicam? Back in 1996, Jennifer Ringley decided to record her life one image at a time every three minutes. Her life blew up. Her site briefly became one of the the top 10 most popular sites on the web. She was on Letterman, her story made it to The Wall Street Journal, she appeared on This American Life, and her public/private life spiralled out of control. She left the internet in 2003. She hasn't really been back.

In 1996, the internet started to dissolve the barrier between private and public with Jennicam.
Today, we say we want privacy, but then we overshare on Facebook; we broadcast our lives in real time with Periscope and Meerkat; and we're surprised when we discover that our Snapchat messages don't always disappear after they've been seen.

Most of us don't live cast our lives the way Ms Ringley did, but in many ways, we share even more. We just don't realize it.

Leaving aside whether the National Security Agency (NSA) can pop open SSL anytime it wants, security holes such as FREAK, and the fact that the government may be collecting photos of your, ahem, junk, anytime you place unencrypted information on a public website, there's a chance it can be looked at by someone else. In addition, every move you make on the web is likely to be monitored.

For many sites, such as Facebook and Google, a big part of their business plan is based on tracking your interests so they can target you more effectively with their ads. Think about it. Just look at the ads on your pages. Does it seem to you that they reflect things you've searched for, said, or liked? Of course they do.

It's also not just that you're being tracked when you're on a company's given site. For example, while Facebook no longer tracks you on the web after you've logged out of its social network, how many of you actually log out of Facebook? I would guess none of you do.

Besides, these days, Facebook relies on Facebook Login, a kind of single sign-on (SSO) to keep track of you when you're away from its site. This way, whenever you use Facebook to log in to some other site, say Pinterest, Facebook knows where you are.

It's not just Facebook. Google has its Advertising ID to track Android users, and Apple uses your email address and IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) to keep an eye on you. With the rise of big data programs, such as Facebook's Atlas, it has become easier than ever for companies to monitor your every internet move.

What we've done is trade our personal information for convenience. We get what we want from the web quickly, and in return the companies we deal with and their advertisers get to follow us every step of the way.

Here's the bottom line: You can lock down your Facebook account, make your iPhone privacy settings just so, and try to only use Security-Socket Layer (SSL) protected websites. Just remember that if you put personal or corporate secrets on the internet, it's all too likely that others can dig it up and look at it. And as for what you do on the web, to paraphrase The Police song: "Every move you make. Every bond you break. Every step you take. I'll be watching you."

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