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There is no anonymity: who and how is following us on the Internet and what can be done about it

Internet providers, browsers, data brokers - people, organizations and programs can track what virtually every user does on the Internet. This is not necessarily a violation of the law: the purpose of collecting data may be advertising or research. New methods of protection against surveillance on the Internet are constantly being developed and implemented, but there are no universal solutions yet, writes “Currently,".

Фото: Depositphotos

Using the Internet, you have probably noticed such "coincidences" many times: you go to the website of a car dealership, and then you are shown advertisements of cars everywhere. Or, after visiting a parent site, ads for diapers and baby formulas start haunting you.

All this is possible because the largest ad networks and many other Internet information gathering services (“data brokers”) try to compose the most complete portrait of each Internet user based on all sorts of - and often open - data. Usually they do it.

On the Internet, anyone can follow you - both by legal means, and in violation of the rights to protect personal information. It’s difficult to protect oneself from some methods of surveillance, but from others. But even armed with all means of counteraction, remember: it is guaranteed to avoid Internet surveillance only by physically disconnecting from access to the Network. And that is not a fact.

Internet Service Providers

Each time you use it to access the Network, your Internet service provider or mobile operator gives a device that connects to the Network (computer, smartphone, tablet) a unique address - an IP address. It can be individual or used by several devices at once. But the main thing is that it’s the easiest way to map the device’s user address to the physical address, passport data, bank account numbers, and so on. Except when you use some kind of public Internet connection like a Wi-Fi point in a cafe.

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Technically, ISPs are capable of viewing everything that you transmit over the Internet in unencrypted form. That is why it is worth using sites with a secure connection (https) or additionally using VPN providers. A VPN is an intermediary that provides the same Internet access via an encrypted communication channel to protect against external eavesdropping. It is only important not to forget that this does not provide one hundred percent invulnerability: you simply trust your data to another company, often from another country. Experienced users can organize their own VPN server and become their own "VPN provider", which will reduce some of the risks. However, in this case, the hosting company will have access to open communications, where you will host the VPN server.

All telecom operators are required by law to cooperate with law enforcement agencies in investigations and provide them with access to user data, and sometimes to facilitate access to secure communications.

Although strong encryption seriously complicates Internet surveillance, the server address is usually transmitted unencrypted first to exchange keys and establish a secure connection. And this also contributes to vulnerability: for receiving sensitive information, it is often not so important what exactly you are transmitting - it is important where or from where. Connection facts and related information (“metadata”), when combined with other information your ISPs have, will reveal a lot about you, even without access to your encrypted data.

Imagine that an attacker with access to the network of your mobile operator sees that your smartphone is connected to a cell tower in the territory of one of the hospitals. Five minutes after this, the operator recorded that you went to the https site of the cancer center (with encryption). An attacker will not be able to easily find out exactly which pages you viewed on this site, but he can with a reasonable degree of certainty assume that you have some kind of cancer problem.

How to deal? It is unlikely that you can completely protect yourself from snooping through providers, but it can be complicated if you use encrypted connections, a VPN, guest Internet access, proxy servers (to hide your IP address), anonymizing Tor network, and other similar services.

Internet companies: through cookies

You've probably seen a pop-up block “We use cookies, click“ OK ”if you agree, or leave if you don't” on sites many times and usually clicked “OK” to get rid of the annoying block. But in the meantime, thanks to cookies (read as “cookies”, literally translated from English - “cookie”) you can be easily tracked on the Internet.

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Cookies are small pieces of text with information about your preferences, which are stored on your computer by websites through your browser. For your convenience, first of all: a news site can “remember” the selected font size and favorite categories, an online store can save products from your basket (to restore them if you lose connection), a social network can write a special session code in cookies so that you you didn't have to constantly enter your username and password.

As usual, problems appeared along with convenience: cookies make it easy to track the activity of Internet users. Although browsers do not allow sites to read other people's cookies (say, does not have access to settings saved by and vice versa), there are many tricks.

If different sites have a code for a unified web analytics system (for example, from Google) or a like button (from Facebook), or a code of a large advertising network, then the owners of all these systems will be able to save and read their cookies from different sites, thereby tracking your online activities. You go to a fishing rod sale site where an advertising system is installed, and she has already read her cookie: “Oh, this is a user with number 123456 stopping by! It looks like he is interested in fishing, he should now show more such advertising. "

This, of course, is a very simplified description: systems are constantly evolving and often to track users compare information from all available sources with other data (for example, IP addresses, data from people’s profiles on social networks, forums, etc.) to get the most complete portrait of each and most effectively show him an advertisement.

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How to deal? Use the latest browser versions. Chrome, Firefox, Safari announced and implemented a number of anti-surveillance features. You can also switch to "incognito mode" or completely disable cookies (radical option). Another option is to install browser extensions that help protect against surveillance (PrivacyBadger, Lightbeam, Ghostery and others), or regularly clean cookies manually. Some data companies allow users to opt out of surveillance through the site. Digital Advertising Alliance.

Internet companies: through browser fingerprints

But far from always, companies need to bother with cookies to track you on the Internet.

Visit the site Amiunique (Or another similar), click “My browser fingerprint” - and you will be shown how unique your computer and browser are, that is, how easy it is to track it among other visitors.

Any site can get a lot of data about the browser and the device on which it is running: program version, time zone, installed fonts, languages ​​and dozens of other settings. While each of these details doesn't make you stand out from the crowd, collectively they often create a unique “digital fingerprint” of the device. And you too.

For example, hundreds of thousands of people using the Windows version of the Chrome browser can constantly visit a site. But only one of them will have the Chrome browser version 76.0.3509 for Windows 8.1 at a screen resolution of 1920 × 1080, while the system will have English, French, Kazakh and Russian languages. Accordingly, such a user is assigned a unique identifier and in the future information about him is collected throughout the Internet. This is what data brokers do: they collect, buy and sell the most detailed information about user profiles. In a very simplified form, it may look like this: “a person with a print XXYYYZZ, most likely at the age of 18-25, is not married, loves travel and cars, smokes, lives, most likely, in the city N or its vicinity”, but often profiles will contain a lot of details, especially if the person is active on the Internet.

Digital fingerprints are not only used for Internet surveillance, of course. Bank sites can use them for additional protection: if the user has always logged in through Safari on MacOS, when trying to log in through Firefox on Windows, you will be prompted to enter your username and password again, just in case.

How to deal? Use the latest browser versions. Chrome, Firefox, Safari announced and implemented a number of anti-surveillance features. The radical solution is to disable Javascript, the language used to collect data; but most sites will then immediately "break". You can try switching to the most popular smartphone-tablet-laptop in your area and not personalizing the settings.

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