Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Some notes on privacy [with ongoing updates]

I keep meaning to put together a more comprehensive list of tools and references concerning online privacy, because I get asked about it almost enough to make me wish I had one place to point to. Ah, well, I guess the key word there is "almost." But meantime, here is part of an email exchange that I had yesterday that offers some links and gives you a sense of where I'm coming from, if you want it. Please feel free to add your favorite ways of protecting your privacy online in the comments, and I'll update this post with them.

A correspondent writes:

Are you mad about google's new "Privacy" plan?

My [slightly edited] response is below the fold. (Which, yes! Tells you it's another one of THOSE responses.)


No, not at all. In fact, my first reaction was to applaud them.

I should say that when I wrote that post, I was under the assumption that Google had, all along, been integrating whatever data it collected about me from all of its services. I may have been wrong about that, or not, but in any case, nothing I've read since they announced their new policies has made me understand why I should be OUTRAGED. Come to that, nothing I've read on that matter has persuaded me that any of the authors even bothered to read past the press release. Or, for that matter, past a short post that someone else had written.

That aside, I guess my feeling, for the past decade or so, and certainly since I created a Gmail account and got all those questions about OMG YOU'RE LETTING GOOGLE READ YOUR MAIL???, has been Everyone is collecting data about you all the time. Google is just one of the few who admit it.

There are lots of controls available through Google to regulate what they will and will not collect and store. And perhaps more to the point: I have approximately none of those switches flipped, and for all the time I spend online -- in Gmail, Blogger, YouTube, and Google search, in particular -- the post I linked to in my previous email (repeated) shows that Google still seems to know little about me, and half of what it thinks it does know is wrong.

A long time ago, I first read a scene in a Travis McGee book in which he was grousing about the loss of privacy. To show you how long "a long time ago" is, what set him off was the increasing need to have a credit card to do just about anything anymore. Meyer and Meyer's friend laughed at him, and then told him the secret was not to waste time trying to stay out of databases, but to get yourself into as many of them as possible, each with slightly different information.

I've lived according to that prescription since. That's one part.

Another is to live my life in a way that leaves me with nothing to hide. Particularly online. I have to admit that I first started posting comments under my real name in part because I couldn't think of a clever pseudonym, but I do take credit for the other part: deciding up front that I shouldn't be publishing anything I wouldn't want to sign my name to.

A third part is to be aware of tools that are available, should I want a little privacy. For example: using private browsing mode (even in IE, if you must), using Tor, periodically clearing tracking cookies, having alternate email addresses, turning off "supercookies," and using Duck Duck Go for searches. And there's another piece. It seems to me that your privacy is enhanced even further when using tools like this, if 99% of the time, you're just openly surfing, and letting Google or whomever collect the data advertisers think is so valuable.

And on that last note: as long as advertisers think "personalized" data is so valuable, it means ad space can be priced higher, and that means better free content, Web-wide. Fine by me.

Am I being a little glib about this? Sure. It's easy for me, especially the parts about living my life in a way that leaves me with nothing to hide, and signing my name to whatever political grousing I'm doing. I know that I have it soft compared to lots of people, in many ways. So, as little as I care about what Google, et al, are collecting about me online, I'm mostly happy that many other people are yelling about it, and providing some sort of counterweight. But to the extent that I feel it's worth spending time and energy battling for privacy (usually, I feel the battle is already lost), I'd rather concentrate on the arena of governments and their obsession with surveillance.

P.S. Probably 511, but as long as we were talking about it, and I had mentioned some privacy tools, here are some more, particular to Firefox users, which came via the monthly newsletter from Mozilla.


Added notes on private browsing:

• I'm reminded by Seth Rosenblatt that for maximum protection while Privately Browsing, you should disable your add-ons, either by hand, or by firing up your browser in Safe Mode.

• For real Safari nerds only: "How to make Safari’s Private Browsing feature actually private." Don't let the title alarm you (Hyperbole in a blog post title? Go figure.) if you don't feel like messing around with really geeky stuff. The aspect of privacy while surfing that I think most people care about is what the outside world can tell, through your browser, where else you visited last time you were surfing. But if you're worried about others with access to your physical machine seeing what sort of "birthday present shopping" you were doing, you might have a look.


[Added] Substance McGravitas has some tips in Comments under one of my earlier posts, linked to above, in case you missed them.

[Added2] Came across a list of FAQs, at least two of which are worth adding here.

I don’t have a Google Account, but use Google search. Am I affected?: No. The new policy only applies to people who have a Google Account linked to services such as Gmail, Picasa or YouTube and are signed in.

What if I have account but am not signed in?: Google can only integrate your information if you are signed in. For example, if you’re signed in to your Gmail account on one tab, and then decide to look up a clip on YouTube on another tab without signing out of your e-mail, the data will be integrated. If you sign out or look up a YouTube clip on a different browser, the data won’t be integrated.

[Added 2012-03-24 14:04] From deGrene in Comments under an On The Media segment on this issue: You might have a look at Ixquick. This is a search engine which is said to aggregate results from several other search engines and to have a strong belief in privacy. You can also, if you like, add it to your browser's list of built-in search engines.

Aside: You'll see from my comments under that OTM piece that I did not think this was one of their finer efforts, fwiw.

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