Have you ever had the feeling that someone's targeting ads directly at you when you're online? Maybe an ad pops up for a resort destination you just happen to have researched a while ago; or perhaps your new favourite author's books keep turning up in web promos alongside your email.
Those ads aren't all showing up by accident. In fact, many companies track people's personalities and habits in order to advertise products and services that are suited to the interests of the individual user. Now Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, is calling on advertisers and marketers to inform Canadians when they're being tracked online.
Stoddart argues that internet users should always be able to opt out of online tracking. A recent study by AT&T and Worcester Polytechnic Institute revealed that social networks frequently forward personal information to data trackers without obtaining meaningful consent from users to do so.
Although the Privacy Commissioner is raising the issue, it may be a while before any legislation is enacted to prevent the practice of online tracking. So what can you do right now to protect yourself? One way is to install anonymity software such as a Tor client (the name was originally an acronym for The Onion Router, referring to the multiple layers of encryption involved), a project originally sponsored by U.S. defence researchers and developed by a non-profit group dedicated to online privacy protection.
The trade off with such tools can often be slower browsing speeds, since web sites must first be transmitted through a series of different servers in order to keep your computer's identity private. The Tor Project, though, has been able to vastly improve this situation in recent years, and in many cases the difference is no longer noticeable.
Among the people for whom anonymity is well worth a bit of waiting time are the activists behind some of the recent uprisings in the Middle East, for whom social networks and blogs were an important organizational tool that also left them subject to monitoring by government security forces.
"The more equipment is acquired and produced by a repressive regime, the more important anonymity is," Julien Pain, who heads the Internet freedom desk for Reporters Without Borders, recently told The New York Times. RWB has made available a guide directed specifically at bloggers trying to protect their identities.
Jennifer Stoddart was in the red chair recently discussing privacy, technology and information:
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