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Privacy Issues, Concerns, and just what is Personification?

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Have you ever wondered whether, or how well, those browser plugins you installed are protecting your privacy?

In this article we will examine some of the assumptions that people make when going online, just how much personal information you're actually giving away when you surf, and available options for limiting the amount of data you deliver to the "Social Concsiousness" on the World Wide Web.

People often ask, "So what is the product that Facebook delivers, as a for profit enterprise?

Why, it is you, young Grasshoppa - You are the actual product that is being delivered...

Silly wabbit, Kix are for Trids!

Let's start with search engines, Shall we? When submit a search, your IP is tracked by most commercial search engines without regards to your privacy. Where that IP address goes, what it looks at, and how long it remains in particular places - all of that is tracked.

If the IP address can be matched to you personally, so much the better, because now we can begin to collect data on you, the consumer. We know what you like, your political leanings, what you buy, read, and even where you physically go. Yes, Which coffee shops you frequent, on which corner; which particular department store you make most of your purchases at, and even more importantly, what kind of advertising is most effective against your inhibitions.

It's no accident that the things you are most interested in are plastered all over the margins of the web pages you visit.

You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found... shopping

Just how pervasive this tracking of your movements and mining of your personal data actually is might, but really shouldn't, surprise you. Okay, did you provide your phone number when you filled out your profile at your favorite social networking site? And is that the same phone number you used when you got your "Rewards" card at your local grocery store? Guess what Einstein? You've bridged the gap between cyberspace and physical geography and retail commerce.

So many people say that, although they have a Facebook or Twitter account, They don't like to click on those like, or +1, or tweet buttons - because they know that they are tracked whenever they do so. Again, guess what Einstein? It doesn't matter! When you are surfing about and you see those social bookmarking buttons, like "Add this" or "Like", etc., you're being tracked, tabulated, compiled, and profiled - in every demographic sense of those implications.

Just by the sheer fact that the code exists on ANY web page for those buttons, you are being tracked, and the proverbial "They", know where you are, when you are there, and what you're doing or inclined to do when you're there.

Strictly for the sake of wanting to sell you something, so that the folks who are paying for you as a commodity, you'll see things that interest you, or things that are on your Christmas list, and even the things you put on your Wedding registry! Yes, those companies are plugged in too.

I'm not inclined to create a list so you can assemble the greatest chastity belt for your browser that has ever been known to man, but we're certainly going to mention a few things that many folks utilize on a daily basis to limit this Aggregation of your personal info. I mean, seriously folks, if you're such a valuable commodity then why aren't you being paid to deliver this data?

First, don't use malware like Internet Exploder, and in general, don't use Microsoft Windows or its associated products. That's just bad juju. When you glide on into Best Buy and play with a tablet or laptop there, decide to purchase it and take it home, one of the first things you'll notice is that there's all this junk that costs money - but it was given to you for free. Guess what Einstein? No it wasn't!

Most of the commercial software that is bundled with those Windows operating systems are there because they paid Microsoft to be included with certain hardware/software bundles - like the box you just purchased. Many of those applications, from Antivirus protection to paid for oneline services, do indeed bring the price of the device you bought way down, because it is already paid for. Another thing to remember, however, is that these companies are only giving you a trial, or crippled version of the software - and indeed, you are certainly being tracked!

Don't want to switch to a free operating system that is more powerful, responsive, stable, and protective of your identity and privacy? Well then let's look at what most people spend their time doing - surfing the web with a browser, and some methods we can incorporate to shore up this aspect of your online interactions, as it relates to your privacy.

Just put up your fisticuffs and block those suckers head on!

Remember when I pointed out that you are being tracked whenever you see those little tweet tweet and Like or +1 buttons? Let's just stop that and a whole bunch of other stuff in their tracks. The Priv3 Plugin for Firefox for Firefox handles a lot of this for you. The Priv3 home page at UC Berkely has the following to say about how this plugin works:

Did you know that social networking sites like Facebook, Google+, and Twitter can track your visits to any web page that uses the familiar "Like", "Follow", or "+1" buttons, even if you do not actually click these buttons?

For example, when you visit a movie review page on, your browser automatically pulls in the "+1" button from Google's servers and the "Like" button from Facebook. These downloads include the session cookies your browser uses to inform Google and Facebook that you have previously logged in, and so Google and Facebook automatically learn about your personal interest in the movie page you're looking at, even if you never actually click on either of their buttons.

The Priv3 Plugin for Firefox receives funding for its development from the National Science Foundation. As much as the governments of the world like to know things about you, there is also much interest at the government level to assist you in protecting, at least your marketable, privacy.

It's not just the social networking companies that are involved in this either. Almost anytime you surf around the net and you see those advertisements abounding in the margins of the websites you visit, those ads are tracking and compiling information about you, and not just when you click on them either!

Do you receive your mail in HTML format? That's typically the default setting for most Microsoft mail clients. If you are, did you know that thousands of the graphic images in emails you receive are tracking you - down to the very second that you open the email, and they're tracking where you are when you open those emails! You don't have to click on anything - just open an email message.

There is certainly no shortage of naive people out there who will lambaste you for endeavoring to completely block all of those website ads, saying, "Well many sites depend on revenue from those ads to support their continued operation!". Yes this is true. But just ask yourself, "What kind of business model is it that has to depend upon such invasive undertakings, and why don't they have a real product other than those ads to fund their business?".

The same people who will flame you for volunteering that you block all of these ads invariably do not have a good answer to that question, and many of them are themselves engaged in those same, arguably nefarious practices. Even on this site, for the sake of popularity rankings in the big search engines, we engage in the practice of having social networking icons - even though we have real business products that aren't related to advertising. And yet we suggest that you zealously block all such content in your own best interests.

One of the most popular and effective plugins used in both Firefox and Google Chrome to block Ads (and make your surfing experience faster too) is the Adblock Plus plugin. The pressure from the commerce sector is not without influence, however, and one must pay special attention when configuring this plugin to make sure that it blocks ALL advertising that it can.

Recently, the authors of Adblock Plus relented to pressure from the commercial sector by agreeing that some advertisers were actually engaged in non-invasive advertising methods, i.e., so-called, "Good" advertisers. So by default, Adblock Plus is by default semi-crippled when you install it unless you dis-enable one check box. Once installed, open the preferences dialog for the plugin and uncheck the box that says, "Allow some non-intrusive advertising". I've included a screenshot of that for your benefit below:

Now, google has provided some methods to filter out a few things, which you can view HERE.

The interesting thing to note, however, is that you must be logged in to take advantage of these limited filtering features. It seems a bit ironic. Nevertheless it is indeed useful.

What are some of our alternatives when it comes to search engines?

Without having to turn to anonymous proxy services or dedicated SSH tunnelling services, These specialized search engines can return vastly different, and refreshing results for you, instead of assuming that you're a consumer with money to spend, and handing you tailored search results based on your shopping tendencies.

Enter the all powerful, all knowing "hosts" file.

One sure fire method of blocking content is to utilize your hosts file. the hosts file has been one of the most effective, albeit manual, methods of pointing a name to a host (i.e., a website or other resource on the Internet) for about four decades now. Using your hosts file is an absolute, and in the past many trojans and other malware would seek to place their IP addresses into your hosts file so that you would end up on their sites regardless of what you typed into your browser, or to block you from being able t update your antivirus programs, for example.

Here's how it works. On the left side of the hosts file, you place an IP address, followed by white space, and then you place a hostname. When you try to navigate to the hostname by invoking it, whatever IP address you have in your hosts file for that resource is where you are going to go. It is absolute and most systems are usually configured so that it supersedes every other type of lookup system.

Here's an example of a couple of entries in a hosts file:

# This is the hosts file. Pretty much all systems have this file.
# Depending upon the operating system you are using,
# it is usually located in one of the locations below:
# /etc/hosts ( If you're using UNIX)
# or
# c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts (If you're using Windows)

# localhost entry (Your own machine) mylaptop laptop # we've hijacked that malware site so it just loops back to us!

# Host entries: bigblue

To be sure, if you enter http:/ into your browsers address bar you will indeed be taken to IBM's main website. If you add that entry into your hosts file and then place http://bigblue into your web browsers address bar, guess what? Yup. You'll go straight to IBM's website.

Similarly, and based on the hosts file above, if this were your hosts file, then entering into your browser would be routed right back to your own machine, and not the intended place that the bubaboo needs to get to, in order to track you, or install more nasties onto your machine!

And that's how the hosts file works :)

Dan Pollock has been gracious enough to publish and share his well maintained and comprehensive hosts file HERE.

Don't just blindly copy and paste the entire contents into your hosts file - read it and decide for yourself exactly which resources you want to block.

If you're running any sort of UNIX (That means Linux, any of the BSDs, or Solaris), then simply pick and choose from the entries in Dan's hosts file and paste them into /etc/hosts. If you're among the unfortunate lamers (Or is that lame'o?) that are still held in captivity and running some some of Windows operating environment, you'll find your hosts file buried deep within the directory structure of your hard drive at C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts - In either case, it works the same. Once you place an entry into your hosts file, it effectively points any traffic to localhost, blocking the resource you don't want interfering with your life.

Dan has affectionately used the term, "Someone who cares". We think he does. Thanks Dan :)

Time to really, really, really pay attention now...

Well, in wrapping up here what might just be part I of a continuing thread on privacy concerns for the modern era, I'll leave you with the following presentation by Eli Pariser, discussing just how many ways, some rather questionable, that search engines, social networking sites, and others, mine your personal data for their own benefit.