Friday, January 29, 2010

Online Anonymity

You are sitting at your computer staring at the screen. You havent logged into any website. You are just casually surfing. You feel pretty confident that you are relatively anonymous, right? How could anyone possible uniquely identify you?

Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is striving to answer that question. They just launched the Panopticlick website which is designed to, in the EFF's words, test "your browser to see how unique it is based on the information it will share with sites it visits."

You can test the uniqueness of your browser here -

Personally, i was surprised to learn that my browser was unique among the more than 220,000 browsers tested. Im browsing with Chrome 4.0 on a MacBook Air running Snow Leopard. I know there are more variables used to determine my browsers configuration (plugins, screen resolution, etc) but its hard to believe that theres not another person with the same configuration as me. Bruce Schneier has similar thoughts here.

1 comment:

Meggie Michaels said...

I think that the results from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick site are somewhat disturbing. My results indicated that my “browser fingerprint appeared to be unique among the 432,198 tested so far.” Furthermore, my “fingerprint” revealed that I have at least 18.72 bits of identifying information on my browser. This idea is a bit disconcerting, as it basically illustrates that no matter what precautions I take to make my internet use “private,” all my actions can still be traced back to my computer—technology appears to have eliminated privacy. While not all one’s information can be discovered using a computer, the internet opens the door for others to eventually uncover more data about oneself. For instance, in his “The Digital Person,” Daniel Solove discusses the Remsburg v. Docusearch, Inc. case. In this case, a man was able to obtain a woman’s social security number though the company Docusearch and subsequently, place a phone call under false pretenses to this woman to obtain her work address. Consequently, the man went to this address and shot the woman. This case illustrates the dangers of releasing what appears to be trivial information. The smallest piece of information (even one’s taste in movies posted on Facebook) can be traced to find more important details of one’s life. For instance, in “Blown to Bits” the authors state that “gender, zip code, and date of birth are all it takes to identify 87% of the U.S. population.” Therefore, while the 18.72 bits of identifying information on my browser may not be particularly important distinguishing bits, they nevertheless open the door for someone to research my browser/viewing history and discover more about me.

However, what I find even more interesting is that although this invasion of privacy is quite disturbing and alarming to most individuals, few take actions to correct this situation; myself included. Upon first discovering this information, one may feel like never using the internet again. However, as stated in the article “Blown to Bits,” “We accept our loss of privacy in exchange for efficiency, convenience, and small price discounts. […] Today, we willingly accept the gaze. We either don’t think about it, don’t know about it, or feel helpless to avoid it except by becoming hermits. We may even judge its benefits to outweigh its risks.” We may feel that as long as everyone is at risk, the chances of someone investigating our personal information are severely reduced. Furthermore, as Solove points out, businesses “gather information as inconspicuously as possible. Making us feel threatened would undermine rather than advance the goal of unencumbered information collection.” I think this is the most important point—we are not consciously aware that our privacy is being violated as we use the internet in the comfort and perceived privacy of our homes. Therefore, we continue to share information about ourselves willingly (i.e. Facebook) or unwillingly (through inconsequential internet surfing as the internet presents the “illusion that it [the information on the internet] is ephemeral.” The perceived sense of obscurity as discussed in Clive Thompson’s article encourages one to post more personal information. We apparently are unaware that the advertisements displayed on our web pages have been specifically placed there based on our viewing history.

Basically, technology is a blessing and a curse. We forfeit our privacy for convenient access to the world around us.