Home | | Information Management | Privacy on the Web

Chapter: Security in Computing : Privacy in Computing

Privacy on the Web

Understanding the Online Environment

Privacy on the Web


The Internet is perhaps the greatest threat to privacy. As Chapter 7 says, an advantage of the Internet, which is also a disadvantage, is anonymity. A user can visit web sites, send messages, and interact with applications without revealing an identity. At least that is what we would like to think. Unfortunately, because of things like cookies, ad-ware, spybots, and malicious code, the anonymity is superficial and largely one-sided. Sophisticated web applications can know a lot about a user, but the user knows relatively little about the application.


The topic is clearly of great interest: a recent Google search returned 7 billion hits for the phrase "web privacy."


In this section we investigate some of the ways a user's privacy is lost on the Internet.


Understanding the Online Environment


The Internet is like a nightmare of a big, unregulated bazaar. Every word you speak can be heard by many others. And the merchants' tents are not what they seem: the spice merchant actually runs a gambling den, and the kind woman selling scarves is really three pirate brothers and a tiger. You reach into your pocket for money only to find that your wallet has been emptied. Then the police tell you that they would love to help but, sadly, no laws apply. Caveat emptor in excelsis.


We have previously described the anonymity of the web. It is difficult for two unrelated parties to authenticate each other. Internet authentication most often confirms the user's identity, not the server's, so the user is unsure that the web site is legitimate. This uncertainty makes it difficult to give informed consent to release of private data: How can consent be informed if you don't know to whom you are giving consent?


Payments on the Web


Customers of online merchants have to be able to pay for purchases. Basically, there are two approaches: the customer presents a credit card to the merchant or the customer arranges payment through an online payment system such as PayPal.


Credit Card Payments


With a credit card, the user enters the credit card number, a special number printed on the card (presumably to demonstrate that the user actually possesses the card), the expiration date of the card (to ensure that the card is currently active), and the billing address of the credit card (presumably to protect against theft of credit card). These protections are all on the side of the merchant: They demonstrate that the merchant made a best effort to determine that the credit card use was legitimate. There is no protection to the customer that the merchant will secure these data. Once the customer has given this information to one merchant, that same information is all that would be required for another merchant to accept a sale charged to the same card.


Furthermore, these pieces of information provide numerous static keys by which to correlate databases. As we have seen, names can be difficult to work with because of the risk of misspelling, variation in presentation, truncation, and the like. Credit card numbers make excellent keys because they can be presented in only one way and there is even a trivial check digit to ensure that the card number is a valid sequence.


Because of problems with stolen credit card numbers, there has been some consideration of disposable credit cards: cards you could use for one transaction or for a fixed short period of time. That way, if a card number is stolen or intercepted, it could not be reused. Furthermore, having multiple card numbers limits the ability to use a credit card number as a key to compromise privacy.


Payment Schemes


The other way to make web payments is with an online payment scheme, such as PayPal (which is now a subsidiary of the eBay auction site). You pay PayPal a sum of money and you receive an account number and a PIN. You can then log in to the PayPal central site, give an e-mail address and amount to be paid, and PayPal transfers that amount. Because it is not regulated under the same banking laws as credit cards, PayPal offers less consumer protection than does a credit card. However, the privacy advantage is that the user's credit card or financial details are known only to PayPal, thus reducing the risk of their being stolen. Similar schemes use cell phones.


Site and Portal Registrations


Registering to use a site is now common. Often the registration is free; you just choose a user ID and password. Newspapers and web portals (such as Yahoo or MSN) are especially fond of this technique. The explanation they give sounds soothing: They will enhance your browsing experience (whatever that means) and be able to offer content to people throughout the world. In reality, the sites want to obtain customer demographics that they can then sell to marketers or show to advertisers to warrant their advertising.


People have trouble remembering numerous IDs so they tend to default to simple ones, often variations on their names. And because people have trouble remembering IDs, the sites are making it easier: Many now ask you to use your e-mail address as your ID. The problem with using the same ID at many sites is that it now becomes a database key on which previously separate databases from different sites can be merged. Even worse, because the ID or e-mail address is often closely related to the individual's real name, this link also connects a person's identity with the other collected data. So now, a data aggregator can infer that V. Putin browsed the New York Times looking for articles on vodka and longevity and then bought 200 shares of stock in a Russian distillery.


You can, of course, try to remember many different IDs. Or you can choose a disposable persona, register for a free e-mail account under a name like xxxyyy, and never use the account for anything except these mandatory free registrations. And it often seems that when there is a need, there arises a service. See www.bugmenot.com for a service that will supply a random anonymous ID and password for sites that require a registration.


Whose Page Is This?


The reason for registrations has little to do with the newspaper or the portal; it has to do with advertisers, the people who pay so the web content can be provided. The web offers much more detailed tracking possibilities than other media. If you see a billboard for a candy bar in the morning and that same advertisement remains in your mind until lunch time and you buy that same candy bar at lunch, the advertiser is very happy: The advertising money has paid off. But the advertiser has no way to know whether you saw an ad (and if so which one). There are some coarse measures: After an ad campaign if sales go up, the campaign probably had some effect. But advertisers would really like a closer cause-and-effect relationship. Then the web arrived.


Third-Party Ads


You log in to Yahoo Sports and you might see advertisements for mortgages, banking, auto loans, maybe some sports magazines or a cable television offer, and a fast food chain. You click one of the links and you either go directly to a "buy here now" form or you get to print a special coupon worth something on your purchase in person. Web advertising is much more connected to the purchaser: You see the ad, you click on it, and they know the ad did its job by attracting your attention. (With a highway billboard they never know if you watch it or traffic.) When you click through and buy, the ad has really paid off. When you click through and print a coupon that you later present, a tracking number on the coupon lets them connect to advertising on a particular web site. From the advertiser's point of view, the immediate feedback is great.


But each of these activities can be tracked and connected. Is it anyone's business that you like basketball and are looking into a second mortgage? Remember that from your having logged in to the portal site, they already have an identity that may link to your actual name.


Contests and Offers

We cannot resist anything free. We will sign up for a chance to win a large prize, even if we have only a minuscule chance of succeeding. Advertisers know that. So contests and special offers are a good chance to get people to divulge private details. Another thing advertisers know is that people are enthusiastic at the moment but enthusiasm and attention wane quickly.


A typical promotion offers you a free month of a service. You just sign up, give a credit card number, which won't be charged until next month, and you get a month's use of the service for free. As soon as you sign up, the credit card number and your name become keys by which to link other data. You came via a web access, so there may be a link history from the forwarding site.


Precautions for Web Surfing


In this section we discuss cookies and web bugs, two technologies that are frequently used to monitor a user's activities without the user's knowledge.




Cookies are files of data set by a web site. They are really a cheap way to transfer a storage need from a web site to a user.


A portal such as Yahoo allows a user to customize the look of the web page. Sadie wants the news headlines, the weather, and her e -mail, with a bright background; Norman wants stock market results, news about current movies playing in his area, and interesting things that happened on this day in history, displayed on a gentle pastel background. Yahoo could keep all this preference information in its database so that it could easily customize pages it sends to these two users. But Netscape realized that the burden could be shifted to the user. The web protocol is basically stateless, meaning that the browser displays whatever it is given, regardless of anything that has happened previously.


A cookie is a text file stored on the user's computer and passed by the user's browser to the web site when the user goes to that site. Thus, preferences for Sadie or Norman are stored on their own computers and passed back to Yahoo to help Yahoo form and deliver a web page according to Sadie's or Norman's preferences. A cookie contains six fields: name, value, expiration date, path on the server to which it is to be delivered, domain of the server to which it is to be delivered, and whether a secure connection (SSL) is required in order for the cookie to be delivered. A site can set as many cookies as it wants and can store any value (up to 4,096 bytes) it wants. Some sites use cookies to avoid a customer's having to log in on each visit to a site; these cookies contain the user's ID and password. A cookie could contain a credit card number, the customer name and shipping address, the date of the last visit to the site, the number of items purchased or the dollar volume of purchases.


Match visits to a site with displays of an ad for that site.


Match a purchase to an ad a person viewed before making the purchase.


Record and report search strings from a search engine.


Of course, all these counting and matching activities produce statistics that the cookie's site can also send back to the central site any time the bug is activated. And these collected data are also available to send to any other partners of the cookie.


Let us assume you are going to a personal investing page which, being financed by ads, contains spaces for ads from four stockbrokers. Let us also assume eight possible brokers could fill these four ad slots. When the page is loaded, DoubleClick retrieves its cookie, sees that you have been to that page before, and also sees that you clicked on broker B5 sometime in the past; then DoubleClick will probably engineer it so that B5 is one of the four brokers displayed to you this time. Also assume DoubleClick sees that you have previously looked at ads for very expensive cars and jewelry. Then full-priced brokers, not discount brokerages, are likely to be chosen for the other three slots. DoubleClick says that part of its service is to present ads that are the most likely to be of interest to the customer, which is in everybody's best interest.


But this strategy also lets DoubleClick build a rich dossier of your web surfing habits. If you visit online gambling sites and then visit a money-lending site, DoubleClick knows. If you purchase herbal remedies for high blood pressure and then visit a health insurance site, DoubleClick knows. DoubleClick knows what personal information you have previously supplied on web forms, such as political affiliation, sexual matters, religion, financial or medical status, or identity information. Even without your supplying private data, merely opening a web page for one political party could put you on that party's solicitation list and the other parties' enemies lists. All this activity goes under the general name of online profiling. Each of these pieces of data is available to the individual firm presenting the web page; DoubleClick collects and redistributes these separate data items as a package.


Presumably all browsing is anonymous. But as we have shown previously, login IDs, e-mail addresses, and retained shipping or billing details can all lead to matching a person with this dossier, so it is no longer an unnamed string of cookies. In 1999, DoubleClick bought Abacus, another company maintaining a marketing database. Abacus collects personal shopping data from catalog merchants, so with that acquisition, DoubleClick gained a way to link personal names and addresses that had previously been only patterns of a machine, not a person.


Cookies associate with a machine, not a user. (For older versions of Windows this is true; for Unix and Windows NT, 2000, and XP, cookies are separated by login ID.) If all members of a family share one machine or if a guest borrows the machine, the apparent connections will be specious. The second problem of the logic concerns the correctness of conclusions drawn: Because the cookies associate actions on a browser, their results are incomplete if a person uses two or more browsers or accounts or machines. As in many other aspects of privacy, when the user does not know what data have been collected, the user cannot know the data's validity.

Web Bugs: Is There an Exterminator?


The preceding discussion of DoubleClick had a passing reference to an invisible image. Such an image is called a clear GIF, 1 x 1 GIF, or web bug. It is an image file 1 pixel by 1 pixel, so it is far too small to detect by normal sight. To the web browser, an image is an image, regardless of size; the browser will ask for a file from the given address.


The distinction between a cookie and a bug is enormous. A cookie is a tracking device, transferred between the user's machine and the server. A web bug is an invisible image that invites or invokes a process. That process can come from any location. A typical advertising web page might have 20 web bugs, inviting 20 other sites to drop images, code, or other bugs onto the user's machine. All this occurs without the user's direct knowledge or certainly control.


Unfortunately, extermination is not so simple as prohibiting images smaller than the eye can see, because many web pages use such images innocently to help align content. Or some specialized visual applications may actually use collections of minute images for a valid purpose. The answer is not to restrict the image but to restrict the collection and dissemination of data.


Study Material, Lecturing Notes, Assignment, Reference, Wiki description explanation, brief detail
Security in Computing : Privacy in Computing : Privacy on the Web |

Privacy Policy, Terms and Conditions, DMCA Policy and Compliant

Copyright © 2018-2024 BrainKart.com; All Rights Reserved. Developed by Therithal info, Chennai.