Civil libertarians should get hip to personal data harvesting

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Despite my tonqe-in-cheek title, I wanted to take a moment to respond to this article, because, though it is likely well-intentioned and in fact rather truthful, it glosses over a more important discussion that should be going on.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

In context:

There are several jokes and cartoons out there that play on the idea of the “anonymous” Web, an Internet where you can be whatever and whoever you want. Most mainstream computer users willingly buy into this concept, deceived by the ability to adopt cryptic usernames and e-mail addresses.

Anonymous Internet usage is an appealing concept to many people, but whether it’s actually possible is a different matter. Generally speaking, it’s relatively simple to intercept–and at the least, monitor–the transmission of digital information.

Every time you transmit data from a computer to or from somewhere else using the Internet, literally dozens of places can exist that are monitoring the transmission. Clear-text protocols offer no built-in protection from eavesdropping. In addition, the transmission leaves traces of “evidence” on your computer–regardless of if you use data encryption or one of those software “evidence eliminator” packages.

An anonymous Internet, if such a thing existed, would be immune to eavesdropping entirely, and it would have no record of a communication ever existing. Anonymous Internet usage is like a “cash” form of communication: It would leave no traceable evidence.

In certain countries, the government restricts and/or controls Internet use. For example, China has one of the most extensive Web proxy server and monitoring capabilities in the world, aptly dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

The Chinese government controls, monitors, and censors Internet access at will. Dissidents and those opposed to the Chinese government, including other governments, constantly try to bypass the censors, but the Great Firewall soon discovers and blocks these noncensored “anonymous” proxy servers.

So it’s understandable why some people see the benefits in leaving no traces of any communication, especially when there’s a fear of reprisal from a government or other organizations. It would be as if the transmission never happened. There’s no record of it ever occurring, and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But, however appealing this concept may be to some, the fact remains that it isn’t realistic. Companies and individuals alike need to be aware that there really is no such thing as anonymous Internet usage. If someone wants to determine what a computer is doing on the Internet, there’s always a trail to follow.

Computer users leave traces of information with almost every data transmission. In fact, an entire computer subindustry has evolved to deal with removing these traces of information, but these companies can only remove what’s on a computer. There are so many other points that can record the “digital footprints” of Internet activity that it’s impossible to completely guarantee anonymity.

Whether anonymous Internet usage will ever exist is not important. What is important is that companies become aware that Internet activity is easy to monitor from a variety of locations, even when data encryption is in use.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

If we take the author’s premise as a given (that anonymous internet usage will never ever exist), then the important discussion to have is what information should be collected about you, and if collected, who has control over it and what can you, as the source of that information, do to control its use, administration and distribution?

If one persists with a blanket notion that personal information collected about one’s behavior on the internet is bad, the future will be very difficult to cope with. The fact is that more and more companies, big and small, are amassing huge databases of information about people. Frankly, if you’re really concerned about this kind of thing, you should stop using your ATM and credit cards because as it is now, it’s easier to track your behavior through your purchases than through your web browser.

But that is going to change. And the dangers are such that, unless a cogent counter-argument is made that fairly deals with the benefits that come with the harvesting of this data, it will be increasingly difficult to take back control or change corporate policies once they’re instated (as with a civil liberty lost is nearly impossible to get back).

So what am I driving at? Well, I think that a more realistic and proactive attitude is needed from the civil libertarian camp that shows its understanding of the value in this kind of data. I also think that a more nuanced attitude towards privacy is desperately needed because all or nothing is not going to cut it as technology gets simpler and better at collecting information about you. I also believe that civil libertarians can benefit from this kind of data collection in ways that I don’t think have been realized. Once we start to see data collection as a strategic tool rather than as an invasion of our private space, we may indeed become powerful enough to take back control over our data.

Author: Chris Messina

Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

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