Did you know that every time you visit a website, read an e-mail, watch a YouTube video or submit a Google search, more than one person is watching you? This week I want to let you know who is watching your internet activity, a little bit of why, and some ways you can limit what they are able see.
Who is watching you on the internet? There are three main groups that watch your internet activity. The first is your Internet Service Provider (ISP); the second is your search engine (Google for example) and the third is the government.
Your ISP watches the activity on the internet for two main reasons. The first is for the security of their network; they want to insure that what you are doing will not impact other customers. This is a very good reason and we should all be glad they monitor for these types of activities. Without this level of monitoring, anyone with the knowledge could take over the data stream and block your ability to use the internet. The second reason is for money. How do they make money off monitoring your activity? They share the information with advertisers for a fee.
How much information can your ISP gather? Surprisingly they get a lot of information from watching simple things, but the good news is that they cannot get anything you do not share or anything you share over a secure connection, at least not without breaking the law. Any site that uses the https address instead of the http address means that only the owner of the website can see the information shared on the site. This means that your online banking is safe from your ISP, except for the fact that they can tell where you bank because they know you visited that particular banking site.
Even if you have the best firewall, anti-spyware software and tight local computer security, your ISP still knows every website you visit, how long you were on it, and how many different websites you visit in a given day. They know if you shop at Amazon, Walmart, Target or E-bay. They know all this just because of one single service that they provide call the Domain Name Service (DNS). DNS is the telephone book for the internet that takes the name you recognize and turns it into the numbers a computer understands to connect your computer to the website.
They can get even more information if you do things like “turn on location service,” “share your relationship status of Facebook,” “post your phone number online” or “use social media sites, like Facebook.” Sometimes we accidentally share more information than we intend by failing to read the “Terms of Service” for things like Facebook. If you take the time to read the fine print, you probably would not want to continue using Facebook or the internet at all; most of us just click “I Agree” so we can move on with our day.
Google, the leader in online search, is able to offer their services to you for free because they are really one of the world’s largest targeted advertising agencies. They gather personal information about you based on your search history. For example, if you search for home remedies for the common cold, you will very soon begin seeing advertisements for cold medications and herbal supplements at the side of your search screen. If you search for a part for your car, you will start seeing advertisements for auto parts stores and possibly car dealerships for your particular manufacturer. Using this information to provide targeted advertising is in the terms of service from Google.
Finally, the government tracks internet activity at all levels: state, federal and even local governments monitor internet activity to “serve and protect.” They gather all the same information your ISP gathers, and usually rely on the ISP to provide the information. Your computer is definitely not a “private” device, especially once you connect it to the internet.
There are a couple of simple things you can do to protect yourself. First never share any information on a site that is not running on https. Second, you can sign up for Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. A VPN allows you to encrypt all the requests coming from your computer and heading to the internet so your ISP cannot tell any information about your connection. However, if you really want to make sure your information stays secure, don’t share it online in the first place. The only secure computing system is the one that is turned off and locked in a safe.