Internet, in 2018, was not a safe place.
By this I don’t mean spam arriving in our inbox, viruses or malware lurking in software downloaded from less-reputable places, or phishing sites masquerading as our favorite e-commerce platforms.
These risks are real, but well understood and widely recognized. However, in the past years there has been an increasing evidence for, and occurrence of, completely different kinds of risk that most of us online are exposed to.
Examples of these are pervasive tracking of behavior online, appropriation of personal data by the apps or sites we use, data breaches, and junk media optimized to maximize engagement.
Before I go over each of these in more detail, a disclaimer: I don’t think everyone’s out to get me, or that big corporations such as Google or Facebook are inherently evil. I do think that companies, big and small, are incentivized to behave in ways that create or increase these risks. That is, the default is to behave in a way that makes things worse.
Start with tracking. Google and Facebook know every page you visit if it has Facebook or Google login, social or like buttons, embeds fonts or maps, uses Google Analytics or any of their dozens of APIs. So do the ad networks: a handful of major ones are used on most sites, and they track unique users so they can build your profile, optimize ad inventory that you see and retarget you. This means they follow you around the internet to show you ads for products you viewed but haven’t bought yet.
Google and Facebook, the portals to the online world for many, know the most about us. But they are not unique in this regard: companies such as Twitter, Amazon and virtually everyone else does it as well.
Is this really a problem? I believe so. I personally don’t like my privacy being violated at will by a random site I happen to visit. On a practical level, I understand that the companies collecting this data aim to maximize their shareholders’ value, not my benefit. While some amount of tracking is acceptable to improve the service I get — and people may have different notion of what’s acceptable to them — there should be a way to draw the line somewhere instead of going full-in.
Tracking can be countered by using an ad blocker, such as uBlock Origin or AdBlock Plus. Today’s ad blockers do more than just block annoying ads: they also disrupt all kinds of invasive tracking, and can be integrated in all modern browsers and mobile devices. This approach does have a side-effect of blocking ads too, depriving sites of revenue. However, at this point I don’t think browsing the web is at all viable without an ad blocker. To put it bluntly, the experience is horrible.
I also use DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine with a focus on privacy and usability. Its results are usually slightly worse than Google’s, but it does have a few extra tricks up its sleeve (such as direct searching of a specific sites) and it’s easy to fall back to Google, so it’s tradeoff I’m willing to make. DuckDuckGo also has a browser extension which can also block tracking software and report site’s privacy score, among other things.
Finally, I use Firefox with Multi-Account Containers and First-Party Isolation features enabled. These are “block 3rd-party cookies” option on steroids, completely isolating each site so no cross-site tracking is possible. The side effect is disrupting features such as log in via Google or Facebook, comments or likes, and site widgets from 3rd party sites. Equipped with a good password manager (I use 1Password), I find this only mildly annoying.
On mobile, I use Firefox Focus, which behaves like a browser in incognito mode, making it easy to forget all history (including any tracking cookies) with a single tap.
The amount of information big internet giants track about us is dwarfed by the amount of data we freely give them: photos, videos, text posts, travel and purchase information, our plans, intentions, fears and desires. And for the most part, they can keep this data forever, use it as they like, including giving others access to it. This has been somewhat limited by the European GDPR and the series of privacy scandals involving Facebook intentionally and unintentionally giving others vast amounts of what should’ve been private data. But it is still largely in place for those not inclined to, or not aware that they have the option to, micro-manage what rights over their data they give Facebook and other big companies.
The problem here lies in not seeing through the implications of this. When you tell Facebook (or Google, …) something, it remembers it forever. For instance, that embarrassing photo or status update you hope everyone’s forgotten by now. That awkward private message that you sent as public instead. That photo of you six months old naked in a bathtub that your parents thought was infinitely cute and just had to share publicly at the time.
All of this will be used, to sell you stuff or to make you come back for more. If you get embarrassed, mobbed, fired or worse — hey, you shouldn’t have posted it online.
Which brings me to the best way to minimize this risk: treat everything you post as if you’ve shouted it on prime-time national TV. If you wouldn’t be comfortable letting the world know about it, don’t put it online.
The only exception to this is email and private messages. Data breaches notwithstanding, these usually come with privacy implied and companies take care to protect these. But even here, it pays to be cautious because your conversation peers might not be.
Another way to ensure your privacy online is respected is to periodically — say, once a year — visit privacy and security settings of the sites you use and verify that all the settings are to your liking. These companies have an annoying habit of changing available privacy controls which then default to something the company finds useful, not what you might’ve wanted.
Massive data breaches, exposing passwords, social security numbers or other private and sensitive information of thousands or even millions of users, are nowadays a common occurrence.
While perfect security is impossible, the fact is that companies are not incentivized to strive for this perfection. One of the larger data breaches, that of up to 40 million credit and debit card details of Target in 2013, cost the company $202 million in total. This is in comparison with $2.4 billion net income for the company in 2017.
The largest data breach in 2018 was that of the Marriot Starwood customers' data, affecting anywhere between 300 and 500 million customers.
Laws like the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act are slowly changing things for the better, but there’s still a long road ahead.
Individually, the best protection is following security best practices such as not using the same password on multiple sites, using HTTPS, enabling 2-factor authentication where avilable, using end-to-end encryption for private messaging, and so on. This decreases the problems you have when (not if) one of the sites you visit has a data breach.
I use the term “junk media” for content that’s primarily designed to get eyeballs, not provide useful information, be interesting or entertain. A few examples are textual and video content farms, social media feeds optimized for engagement or viral content, or irrelevant “breaking news”. Again, the line here is blurry and everyone will have differing criteria.
Why am I mentioning junk media in a post about staying safe online? Similar to over-sharing of our personal data, this is something we do to ourselves without really thinking about it. Accumulating over the longer term, it can also have negative consequences for us.
Junk media may be “fun” or “interesting” in the sense that we have an instant reaction, just like junk food can be tasty while containing poor nutritional value. In either case, indulging in moderation is not a problem, but a steady diet of either won’t be good for our health.
The problem is that moderation doesn’t maximize revenue. In purely commercial terms, the winning strategy for the media companies is to maximize views and engagement while minimizing churn. The more time we spend on those sites and the more content we consume, comment on or share, the better. The quality of time spent for the consumer is of secondary importance — just good enough to prevent people from leaving.
Junk media is not confined to online. It’s equally present in the press, on the TV and the radio. In the past, there’s been a lot said of negative effects of too much TV. Comparatively little research has been done into negative effects of too much social media.
Not consuming too much junk media is as easy — or as hard — as not overeating junk food: just don’t do it. A more actionable advice is putting it “out of reach” so you won’t unthinkingly reach for it. For example, I open Facebook from an incognito browser and have 2-factor authentication enabled. This forces me to go through multi-step login process each time I want to visit, making it inconvenient enough that I only visit if I really want to. For the same reason I also haven’t installed a Facebook app on my phone — it makes it too convenient to dive back in.
I’ve titled the post “Digital hygiene”. As with the regular form, digital hygiene consists of small things we can do every day that improve our health and minimize health risks.
Starting with the security best practices, thinking about what kind of information we’re sharing (willingly or not) with companies and the larger public and the possible implications down the road, we can change our behavior ever so slightly to minimize the downsides, while still reaping the benefits, of living online.
This post is my attempt to raise your awareness of some of these things, share a few practical tips, and give you some food for thought.