Sunday, June 25, 2006

Privacy on the Internet

Many Internet users are under the false impression that their presence on the net is invisible; unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Recent news headlines detailed how the US government has been conducting warrant-less wiretapping on Americans. Earlier this year, news broke that the federal government had approached the three largest Internet search engines, Google, MSN and Yahoo!, and asked for an assortment of information from their databases. While Yahoo! and MSN acquiesce, Google resisted and ultimately took it to court. The court ruling was a partial victory for Google, Google was ordered to give an abbreviated list of items requested by the federal government. But, the US federal government isn’t the only entity which is gathering information on net users. The previous mentioned three search engines are also gathering information on net users.

Usually, the search engine gathers information about the search queries a user enters and what websites they visit. The information is then used to present relevant ads to the user. Google’s biggest source of income comes from their ads, which are displayed on the search result page. Yes, this might sound innocuous but why have anyone or any company monitoring your presence on the Internet. In the real world, I doubt many people would enjoy having someone shadowing them. Nor do I expect people to allow someone to read their mail. Yet, all these things are happening on the Internet. For example, every time you visit Amazon, Amazon will record what items you visited and, the next time you visit their site, they will target you with relevant items. Gmail scans users’ messages and display relevant ads on their site. Yahoo! uses web beacons to track your movement on the Internet. Also, Yahoo! surrendered information to the Chinese government that lead to the arrest of several civil activists.

There have been several court rulings which support the federal government right to monitor activity on the net. In one of the most recent rulings, ISP’s are required by law to retain records of their customers’ activity on the net for at least two years.

Needless to say, net users need to keep up to date on issues regarding their privacy on the net. Though it is impossible to stealth all of activity on the net, there is nevertheless ways to keep it to a minimum. I will be exploring these items in the coming posts.

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