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Anonymity on the Internet
Or how everyone is forced to give it up.
Although it has been known for a while that all information available on the Internet and at service providers is accessible to several entities, the world just got new evidence that it is done in large. On one hand, all Internet traffic is analyzed, on the other hand secret agencies have gained access to all major service providers. That means all Information available online has to be considered public and is potentially used to create a personal profile. Here, I want to show what possibilities exist to track every single individual and to obtain a precise description of behavior and actions, probably more precise than we would think.
The obvious: Mayor websites
We all use online services for mailing, social interaction and to do research. All of these require every user to give up some data privacy in order to use the service.
Facebook is the most widely used social network website. It has millions of active users that generate content ay actively posting updates and by browsing content generated by others. As the website is intended to be self contained, meaning that it is not required to leave its boundaries, Facebook is able to generate a fairly complete picture of what every user is doing, whom he is interacting with and what his interests are. Valuable private information (telephone number, email address) can be used to match persons even if the specified name is not the true name.
The Like-button on external websites allows Facebook to track users on their path through the Internet. Even signing out of Facebook does not help, as Facebook still stores information uniquely identifying each user in the browser afterwards. (cite)
Google is known to many as a search engine and with Gmail as an email provider. It also offers a social network, has the biggest advertising network and controls the Android operating system. The company actively combines data from all sources in order to generate a better user experience and to be able to target advertisements better. A lot of very private information is available, either explicitly because the users are required to specify it, or implicitly due to the enormous amounts of data collected for each user. Again, Google probably knows your phone numbers, alternative email addresses and people communicated with, including the content.
Others: Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter
The same holds for a variety of other service providers. Eventually this list might be more complete.
I assume that most users have an idea of what data they would like to share with whom and what data should remain private. However, websites collecting user generated content suggest a better user experience when the user shares data more actively. For example, Facebook has 'Likes', a very simple way for other users to indicate some form of agreement to some published information. From a user's perspective it is rewarding to collect a lot of likes, and the more is published the more likes a user might get. By providing this information to Facebook a user gives up all control over it. (It seems like the user is in control by providing delete buttons, but can one be sure it does really delete the data?)
Another problem is convenience. Google provides a very good user experience, and it gets better the more services a user accesses. On the other hand, it also means that Google has access to more information that it can use to run its business on. Many of us rely on chat and email, we want to have access on any device wherever we are. But that means the data must be stored somewhere, and by combining identifying information it is possible to create a more complete profile of a person.
Many people use the Internet to manage very private parts of their life. For example, it is very easy to manage money using online banking, or maintain contracts online.