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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: go to the car dealership website, and then you will be shown cars advertisements everywhere. Or after visiting the site for parents, you begin to pursue an advertisement for diapers and baby formulas.

All this is possible because the largest advertising networks and many other Internet services for collecting information ("data brokers") are trying to create the most complete portrait of each Internet user based on all kinds 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, providers are able to view 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. VPN is an intermediary that provides the same Internet access through an encrypted communication channel to protect against external “wiretapping”. It’s important not to forget that this does not ensure absolute invulnerability: you simply trust your data to another company, often from another country. Experienced users can organize a VPN server for themselves and become their own “VPN provider”, which will reduce some of the risks. However, in this case, access to open communications will already be with the hosting company where you will place 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 monitoring, the server address is usually transmitted unencrypted first: this is necessary to exchange keys and establish a secure connection. And this also contributes to vulnerability: to get sensitive information, it’s often not so important what you transmit, it matters where or where. Connection facts and related information (“metadata”), if compared with other information available from your providers, will allow you to learn 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 have probably seen the pop-up block “We use cookies, click“ OK ”if you agree, or leave if not, and usually click“ OK ”to get rid of the annoying block many times on sites. But meanwhile, thanks to cookies (read as “cookies”, literally translated from English - “cookies”) you can easily track on the Internet.

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Cookies are small pieces of text with information about your preferences that sites use a browser to store on your computer. For your convenience, first of all: a news site can “remember” the selected font size and favorite categories, an online store - save products from your basket (to restore them if you lose contact), a social network - write a special session code in cookies so that you I didn’t have to constantly enter a name 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 the code for a single web analytics system (for example, from Google) or the like button (from Facebook) or the code for a large advertising network is installed on different sites, then the owners of all these systems will be able to save and read their cookies from different sites, thereby tracking your actions on the Internet. You go to the fishing rod sales site, where the advertising system is installed, and she already read her cookie: “Oh, it’s the same user with the number 123456 who has looked! It seems that he is interested in fishing, we should now show him more of 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 functions to combat surveillance. You can also go to the “incognito mode” or completely disable cookies (a radical option). Another option is to install browser extensions to help guard against snooping (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 the fingerprints of browsers

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 they will show you 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: version of the program, time zone, installed fonts, languages ​​and dozens of other settings. Although each of these details does not allow you to clearly distinguish you from the crowd, all together they often create a unique “digital fingerprint” of the device. And you at the same time.

Let's say hundreds of thousands of people using the Windows version of the Chrome browser can constantly come to the site. But only one of them will have a Chrome browser version 76.0.3509 under Windows 8.1 with a screen resolution of 1920 × 1080, and the system will have English, French, Kazakh and Russian languages. Accordingly, a unique identifier is assigned to such a user and information is collected about him 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 the XXYYYZZ fingerprint, most likely aged 18-25 years, not married, loves traveling and cars, smokes, lives, most likely, in the city of N or its surroundings”, but often profiles will contain a lot of details, especially if a person is active on the Internet.

"Digital fingerprints" are used, of course, not only for Internet surveillance. Banking sites can use them for added protection: if the user has been logging in through Safari on MacOS all the time, when you try to log in through Firefox on Windows, you will be prompted to enter your name and password just in case.

How to deal? Use the latest browser versions. Chrome, Firefox, Safari Announced and implemented a number of functions to combat surveillance. A radical solution is to disable Javascript, the language used to collect data; but most sites then immediately break down. You can try to transfer to the most popular smartphone-tablet-laptop in your area and not personalize the settings.

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