Sunday, October 16, 2005

Privacy? Don't make me laugh.

A long time ago I ceased to be surprised by the number of tricks that can be used to gather information about people over the net. For instance, this page has a hit counter on it. It doesn't display anything, it just lets me know how many people view my page. But there's more. It also tracks the IP addresses of everyone who visits the page. Each IP address can be traced to an ISP and, in most cases, a particular city or area. As an example. This came from the folks at Statcounter who host some hit tracking software.

(net address blurred for anonymity sake)

It may look like just a little bit of information, but where the hits are coming from (and when) can give you a really neat profile of the kind of people looking at your page. And there's more

You can also figure out the type of operating system and browser a person is using to view your page. Don't believe me?

Go here. There's a simple script to tell what kind of browser you're using.

Instant messaging systems can be dissected in similar ways too. AIM has a neat little blocking feature that let's you hide from specific users. But places like this let you get around that to see if the person is really online or not.

Of course none of this is perfect. Most software can't really compensate for proxy servers. The proxy is kind of a neat service really. It's like calling a buddy in some other city and asking him to download a webpage and send it to you. The website never has to know about it.

And the AIM check trick doesn't work perfectly either. I've enabled a little feature that hides you from all users not on your buddy list. I checked myself (while I was online) and this is what I got.
So it doesn't work all the time. But I'm sure there are other tricks.

So what's a fellow to do? Well, for the most part, don't worry about it. IP addresses can't easily be linked to a name, so your exact surfing habits can't be linked to you in most cases. And as far as personal information goes...watch out for spyware and don't post anything online you wouldn't want people to read about. In my case this means running scans of my computer and not mentioning my company's name online. In your case maybe other measures are called for.

Regardless, there's probably no need to worry, just be aware that everyone gives up a tiny bit of privacy by being online.

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