Privacy on Parade

Feb 13, 2012 1 Comment by

In late 2011 Google, in partnership with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, ran a series of print and poster ads suggesting how benevolent their gathering of your personal information was.  The stuff they stored was useful to you; it remembered your name, where you lived, what you liked etc and in so-doing provided you with a better online experience.


Information is the juice that powers a free Internet.  It’s the carrot that websites such as Google and Amazon dangle in front of commercial interests that want to target their offerings to potential customers who they think are more likely to buy product A because they live in city B, at postcode C, therefore have a probable disposable income of D and in the past have bought X, Y and Z.  The $50 to $100 billion Facebook is supposedly worth isn’t based on it knowing that Janet likes John but that Janet likes Prada.

There’s a certain irony in the hoops we have to jump through online when it comes to accessing anything with a whiff of ‘security’ about it.  TF is constantly having to be reminded of username/password combinations to access the most anodyne of accounts, such as buying tickets from the thieving megalith that is Ticketmaster or for performances at the National Theatre.  Imagine if someone hacked into our NT account and bought theatre tickets and went to see a play pretending to be Tech Fogey!!! Empires have fallen on the back of such chinks in user account armour.  TF is glad to be made to work to get into its online bank account but less glad that every website and its dog seems to be able to stick its snout into what we’re doing any time we’re online without being invited.  It is theoretically possible to counter the cyber-snoopers by setting various preferential options but they will always be one step ahead.  Google employs more PhDs than any company in the world.  Your handful of GCSEs just isn’t going to cut it.

Everything you do online is, or can be, monitored.  Everything.  Not by a human – well, not at first – but by a cunning algorithm or tracking cookie or other clandestinely burrowing cyber-termite.  Tweet or email your dastardly plans for nations being vaporized in a huge plume of smoke and await a knock on the door from Big Brother and all his brothers.  And they won’t be smiling.

Ever wonder why the same ads keep popping up on your screen whenever you’re online?  They’re tailored to what you’ve searched for or bought previously (although why AOL thinks I need life insurance – I already have it, or contact lenses – barely wear glasses, or am keen to donate even more money to charity – enough already! is a mystery and only makes me hate them).  The orthodoxy is that we are creatures of habit.  Buy a box set of The Killing series one on Amazon and it will assume you’ll soon be after series two and maybe the Danish politico Borgen as well.  And maybe discounted slightly to sweeten the deal.  Spend time on ebay and, as if by magic, ebay ads will appear at the top if your home page.  Many Internet users are accustomed to such targeted ads, others are oblivious, some find it mildly disturbing.

And then there’s Facebook.  TF has been chastised by its webmaster (he’s the one who does all the noodly coding stuff that gives the rest of us slack-jawed brain ache) for not being on Facebook.  “It’s good for Google search if people can ‘like’ you on Facebook,” he groans.  “Why won’t you have a Tech Fogey Facebook page?  It would drive traffic, get more people to the site, make money, be famous, sell to a huge corporation for millions and billions and then we’d all be rich!!!”  At least that’s the sub-text of his argument.  I think.  But Facebook and Tech Fogey would be curious bed-fellows; a bit like Scarlett Johansson shacking up with Brian Sewell.  Unlikely and more than a bit yucky.

Anyway, with that awful coupling now seared into our subconscious, here are a couple of links to some articles from the Feb 5th edition of the New York Times that deal with online privacy, the lack thereof and what might be done to change things.

Should Personal Data Be Personal?  by Somini Sengupta and Facebook Is Using You, by Lori Andrews whose book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacywill turn you back into an ink and paper letter writer faster than you can say ‘cookie, doh!’

Incidentally, if you use Mozilla Firefox as your web browser (and why wouldn’t you?) you can block display ads.  Admittedly, there are dozens of online ad hawkers, so it’s an on-going battle but still quite fun to stem the tide.  And if you switch off Flash (that’s the Adobe software that enables animated advertisements) you can stop such ads jiggling about on your screen in that hatefully distracting way they do.  And if you set your browser preferences in a certain way you can also delete all the tracking cookies that follow your every online move and any temporary files that have been surreptitiously downloaded to your hard drive.

1.  Stopping ads displaying.

This won’t work in Internet Explorer and not sure about Chrome, although given that it’s Google’s own browser what are the odds?  So, in Firefox, right click on the display ad.  A list of options appears.  Scroll down to View Image Info and left click on that.  This will bring up a screen at the left of which is a box, next to which it reads ‘block images from…’  Left click to tick the box and then close the frame.  Refresh the page and the ad will be gone.

2.  Switching off Flash.

On the toolbar at the top of the web page, click ‘tools’. Select ‘add-ons’, then ‘plug-ins’, then find Shockwave Flash and disable it.

3.  Deleting cookies and temporary files.

On the toolbar at the top of the web page, click ‘tools’.  Select ‘clear recent history’, tick the boxes relating to items you want to delete (not a bad idea to keep ‘active log-ons’), then click ‘clear now’.  Before you do this, and just for a laugh, you can have a look at all the cookies stored on your computer by ever-so-helpful commercial organisations.  Go to start > control panel > Internet options > general > browsing history > settings > view files.  Here you can also set various options regarding cookies and what gets ‘remembered’ by your PC when you turn it off.  Know this, however: nothing is ever really deleted (how do you think the authorities catch up with kiddy fiddlers?). We’ve all ‘lost’ stuff we’ve been working on but avail yourself of a software programme such as Easus Todo Back-up Free and that likelihood will diminish.