What exactly does the Internet know about you?

I’m a huge privacy advocate as you could probably tell from some of my previous articles and I’ve decided to show you all just how much information you’re sharing with the world as you browse the web.

Let’s start with the information you voluntarily give: Social networks have always been a major issue for privacy lovers like myself. They are built with the sole intent of selling all the information you input.

When you sign up for Facebook every bit of data you type in from your age to your sexual orientation goes to a Facebook database. From this database advertisers get unlimited access so they can sell you their wares. That means anyone who signs up for an advertising account with Facebook has access to your relationship status, wall posts and more.

Not only this, Facebook has in the past made sweeping changes to their privacy settings with little to no notifications to their users. They’re not the only ones, when Google tried to make a social network with Google Buzz they made some serious mistakes when it came to privacy.

Lets go back to advertisers. I’ll let Prof. Wills, Chief technologist for the FTC tell you a little more about what advertisers do beyond social networks:

“When you go surfing around the Web, you go to what we would call first-party sites. And in the background, we have these third parties who you typically, as users, don’t see. And these third parties are the ones that are actually tracking you.

And what they’re doing is they’re using some of these cookies that you referred to that build up an anonymous profile about us that if I go to ESPN, I probably like sports; if I go to NASCAR, I’m probably male, or maybe if I go to AARP, that says something about how old I am.”

This information is tracked in many different ways. The simplest is the use of a cookie, but many people disable cookies so advertisers have gotten smarter. They now use flash cookies and even the unique configuration of your browser as a way to track you. These companies have access to every single website you visit and they build a profile of you so they can advertise the right products to you.

This is best shown in an info-graphic by the makers of Duck Duck Go, a search engine.

After explaining how advertisers get your information the info-graphic goes on to demonstrate how Google tracks of all your searches. Not only do they keep track, they connect your IP with the search so as long as you use the same Internet line to connect to the web, there is no way for you to get away from that list.

Google will never voluntarily release this data of course but it is possible for an enterprising hacker to get access to it. This website lets you browse through the search history of some people who made searches in AOL. Imagine being part of this website…

Not only are advertisers and Google tracking everything you do, but every website you visit does the same. Google Analytics is a program most webmasters install with the sole purpose of tracking your information. It lets the webmaster know your web browser, operating system, where you live (city and country) and more.

This information is mostly used for advertising (there’s that word again!)

Your actual access to the Internet is given to you by an ISP like Rogers or Bell, these companies keep logs of everything you do online and keep it connected with your IP, which is connected with your account. Meaning they know your address. The Police and some federal agencies can get access to this data during criminal investigations. Which is how they can arrest people who make death threats online.

An ISP in Sweden recently took steps to make this data anonymous which prompted a lot of people to ask if North American ISP’s can do the same.

Along with all that fun tracking you also have to be aware that anyone with access to the same wireless network as you can easily track every website you go to.

We really do live in the information age.

If you want to know how to take steps to protect yourself from all this, please read my detailed article on how to do just that here.