Problems with online anonymity

The internet probably knows what your favourite shoes look like. How you may ask? Your data is being monitored through your PC without you hearing as much as a peep about it. Private firms can spy on users from the comfort of their own computers.

The FTC has recently handed in a report advising private firms to be more open about their data collection practices. New laws regarding user privacy are also currently being worked on.

Users who want to preserve any semblance of privacy left are looking into do-not-track tools. Some suggest adding a do-not-track option directly into browsers, while others are in favor of different software that can curb data collection altogether.

With regular website cookies come other tracking cookies that help the sites we’re visiting identify our user pattern and collect our data. Current data collection practices aren’t transparent, so we have no idea what these sites are up to once they have what they need.

Failure to comply

The universal do-not-track button goes as far as requesting a website that a user’s information not be tracked as they browse a site. However there’s no guarantee that the site will comply with the request.

This option does close to nothing in terms of blocking the websites access, largely because it can’t. Google’s recent fine for lifting data from open Wi-Fi connections without user permission and Facebook’s accessing people’s texts on app user’s cell phones is proof that firms don’t always adhere to the norms of privacy – and those are two really big firms.

At best a do-no-track tool will lull you into a false sense of security where in reality you have more than one front to protect yourself on. Large private firms aren’t the only ones stealing data; there are numerous other threats which one needs to take into account.

Monsters beneath your bed

Fighting against tracking cookies alone is as much the same as looking for the monster in the closet without realizing what’s hiding under your bed.

Options such as AVG’s Do-Not-Track or DNT+ will only go as far as the do-not-track button is meant to. However, PC monitoring tools and other forms of spyware could already exist on your system – granted the data would be going to a person and not a company.

Most computer monitoring software is wired to record your browsing history. Whether or not you’re deleting your cookies becomes irrelevant here. The same is the case with spyware or malware that you mistakenly download by clicking on obscure links or opening spam emails.

No free lunches

Free Wi-Fi is a real treat till you realize that there’s a chance it’s been decked up with computer monitoring software which can record every move you make on your browser. Software such are Firesheep and Wireshark can easily make their way into your system if you’re on a network that has them preinstalled. The Wi-Fi owner has no need to break into your system manually or be anywhere near you to figure out what you’re using the Wi-Fi for.

The WiFi LogoThat’s if you’re using someone else’s Wi-Fi. However even if your own Wi-Fi is open you’re in danger of being attacked. During 2010 reports that Google was lifting private data through open Wi-Fi’s first surfaced, and regardless of how apologetic Google was, it never stopped the practice.

Even with new laws in place for the preservation of user data and more transparency as to what cookies are infiltrating user systems, there’s still a large potential for data collection against a user’s will.

The best idea would be to take a holistic approach to your browsing experience and stay safe from all sides – after all don’t-track-tools are only one a small aspect of online safety, not the key.

Steps to Take Before Throwing Away Your Old PC

In 2010, the FTC recorded over 250,000 complaints of identity theft in the United States. While many identity thieves still get their information from your paper mail, a stolen purse or wallet, or hacked files online, more and more are starting to glean sensitive information from the hard drives of old computers. If you’re getting ready to toss out your desktop or laptop in favor of a newer model, take these steps to protect yourself from identity theft.

What information might be stored?

Not sure it’s worth all that work to wipe your hard drive? After all, you don’t keep a ton of important information on your computer, so what could a hacker possibly find anyway; and if you’re just donating your computer or selling it for cheap, what are the odds that an identity thief is going to get his hands on it?

The problem with this line of thinking is that often times, your computer has stored information that you don’t even know it has stored.

Common information stored on computers includes account numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, registration keys for software programs that you use, medical information, addresses, and even tax returns – which contain pretty much all the personal information necessary for a someone to apply for a credit card or bank loan in your name!

Keep in mind that many identity thieves will actually buy a used computer – or even steal a donated one – in the hope of gleaning such personal information. This information can be worth thousands of dollars to them and can create a huge headache – and financial problems – for you.

How to get rid of the data

So, before you sell your computer or donate it to your local school system, take these steps to get rid of the data for good:

1. Don’t count of just deleting the files. While you’ll want to delete the files from your computer, this is just the first step to take. Identity thieves are often experts at getting deleted information from hard drives by using specialized software.

2. Save any files you want to keep. Before you wipe your hard drive, you will, of course, want to save any files you want to keep. You can transfer your data to a new computer, burn it to a CD, put it on a USB drive, or put it on an external hard drive – a particularly good option if you need to store a ton of files or information.

3. Use a utility program specifically meant to wipe your hard drive. Local tech stores will sell utility programs meant for this purpose that match up with your specific operating system. The best idea is to get a program that will overwrite or wipe the hard drive several times instead of just once, and you’ll definitely want a program that wipes the entire drive.

If you know your computer has particularly sensitive information on it and you don’t trust a utility program to get rid of the information, you can always destroy the hard drive physically.

Businesses in particular, often use hard drive shredding services, as their computers tend to have lots of personal information on both employees and customers of the business.

A hard disk shredder

A hard drive being shredded

Once you shred the hard drive, you can simply sell or donate the rest of the computer without it, and the new owner can then completely replace the hard drive.

Watching for identity theft

Even if you are careful to destroy information on your computer before you sell or donate it, it’s a good idea to be wary of potential identity theft.

Check your credit reports regularly to ensure that everything is accurate. Credit reports are normally the first place you’ll see evidence of identity theft when new accounts pop up that you didn’t open. If you do think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, get identity theft assistance as soon as possible.

Report the problem to the credit reporting bureaus, who will place a fraud alert on your account. Then close the new, fraudulent accounts. Finally, report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission and your local police department.

If you’ve taken steps to protect your personal information from being stolen, you may never have to deal with the problem of identity theft, but it’s always a good idea to be aware of what you should do if your identity should be stolen.

The State of the Blogosphere have recently published their State of the Bolgosphere 2011 report and it raises some interesting questions. The report is based upon a survey of 4114 bloggers around the world, and presents various statistics in easily readable graph format explaining who blogs and their stated reasons why and purposes.
A chalkboard expression of what a blog might be
I am one of the 30% over 44 year olds, with the majority being considerably younger than me and much more experienced. A small percentage treat blogging as their job, make an income from their posts or run a blog for their own business or employer. The vast majority do it as a hobby, in the main to express their expertise or interests. A major sector say that they just blog in order to speak their mind freely.
I am most interested in the professional category, and I in fact find myself somewhere within that group. I am not however paid to promote something, but to provoke discussion about the ethical implications and responsibility issues brought about by technological development, and one of my tools is blogging. My employer is also a non-profit research foundation, so the aim of making money is out of the equation.

Blogging is generally perceived as a pier to pier action, and the report cited above demonstrates that people trust blogs and bloggers, in many cases more that they trust other publishers. But what if we find people publishing reviews about services or products that they have a vested interest in? If I am paid by a company to review or promote their products can I be really honest in my views? And what about the breech of trust implied?

In the US the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) made a ruling in 2009 determining that bloggers have to state if they are paid for posts by an interested third party. If a blogger in the US does not state that they either receive the product to keep or are paid by someone to write the review they risk an 11000 dollar fine. In the UK the Office of Fair Trading also has extensive blogging disclosure rules. All well and good, but the report above states however that only 60% of people that find themselves in this position actually adhere to the rules, and the statistics are very likely to be skewed, as when a person is asked if they have respected the rules that almost always say yes.

How could this problem be addressed? The Technology Bloggers site refuses to publish anything that may be deemed promotion, the author guidelines are clear. But would it be possible for all blogs make this statement and enforce it, and if it were possible would they do it? The implications for trust and the spreading of reliable information are obvious.

Another issue I wish to raise involves advertising. The report offers various statistics about how many blogs have advertisement placings, before going on to analyze the reasons given either for not carrying or carrying advertising, the issue of control over who advertises and the possible financial rewards.

Here again we step into the issue of trust. If a blog has a reputation as offering reliable and quality information this reflects upon the company advertising. The placing is a two way endorsement. If advertising is not offered (as some may feel that it affects independent status or may not reflect the blogger’s ideals), how can a blog not only make money (if that is the aim) or even cover its expenses? Most bloggers sink their own money into setting up and running their blog, and if you add up the time spent in maintenance (and the administrators are undoubtedly experts in their field) each blog should be seen as a real investment in terms of many different forms of capital. You pay $120 an hour for such expertise in other fields!