Why you shouldn’t expect privacy on the internet

If you stood in the doorway of your house, shouting how you murdered someone, while a TV news crew was standing next door; you would likely have a hard job of arguing you had a right to privacy, although I no doubt there are some lawyers that would try. Likewise, when you go virtually anywhere in the country, you’ll be recorded on CCTV at least once. So my question is, why should it be any difference on the internet?

Let’s start with Google, the almost undisputed king of search and advertising, a handy little combination which contributed towards their multi-billion earnings. Google happens to be the same company who made the news for slurping data from unencrypted wireless points via its “Street View” cars. This seemed to upset a lot of people who talked about privacy being violated, somehow missing the blindingly obvious point that the information was being broadcast in an unencrypted form. The word broadcast is actually an important point here, defined as being “cast or scattered in all directions” by Merriam-Webster. In computer networking it means to be sent indiscriminately to all nodes of a network, whether wanted or not. Either way, it fits in with my opening argument of how much privacy such an act should be afforded.

In reality, what Google did in this case is even less serious though, since unlike the news crew, they didn’t stand there listening to everything, writing it down and planning to use it. Google say they collected the information by mistake, something which could possibly be true. Either way, what they actually ended up is what you would get if you went for a walk through a crowded park on a sunny day, as you walk past lots of people sitting round chatting to each other, you’d pick up fragments of each of their conversations, without ever really getting enough information to put them into context.

What this whole sorry affair tells me though is that the people who had their information captured are stupid. Regardless of skill or experience, virtually everyone has heard of hacking and wireless security. Almost every domestic grade router you can buy either comes with a wireless password set, or forces you to set one before you can use the wireless. Off the top of my head I can think of no reason to use an unencrypted wireless connection, and where there is such a need, it should be set up by a professional in such a way to avoid this kind of data leakage as far as it is possible to do so.

For the next case, I want to stick with Google, but bring this website into the discussion. I want to talk about Cookies, and sadly not the edible kind with bits of chocolate in them. Here’s the thing about cookies, I use them, Google uses them massively, and so does just about any website on the internet that is worth visiting. However thanks to the bloody EU and the ICO we all need to ask your permission now to use cookies, with the potential for fines of up to £500k for those who fail to comply.

Once upon a time, cookies were unnecessary. There was no need to be able to track a user between pages. Then the modern internet came along with things like user authentication and e-commerce and then there was a need and the cookie answered it. At some point advertisers such as Google realised that if they tracked the pages that a user visits on the internet, they could target adverts at users better, which meant they could charge more for the privilege of advertising through them. Of course, if you didn’t want to do this to happen, you could turn off cookies, but you wouldn’t be able to use the site any more, so not many people did.

What nobody seems to have realised is that the internet isn’t actually free. The £9.99 or whatever you pay each month is only for your access, not for the content you consume. If you use online services from the BBC, then this is paid through your license fee, but otherwise advertising tends to fund the content on the internet. CallamMcMillan.com doesn’t use advertising, but providing this content doesn’t come free either. Every two years I have to pay a sizable chunk of money to maintain this site and should I decide to use advertising to help offset this cost so you don’t have to pay to read this article then I shouldn’t have to ask your permission, and if you don’t like being tracked, then please feel free to hit the close button on your browser.

As such what we have ended up with is bad law, since you as a web developer now have to give your visitors a choice whether to opt in or out of receiving tracking and advertising cookies, while cookies essential for core functionality can be set without requiring consent. This means that most visitors will say no, or ignore the box asking whether they consent. Long term this means that the amount of tracking will fall, leading to a collapse in the prices advertisers will be able to receive. This means the sites that show the ads will receive less in commission and will either have to change their businesses or shut up shop.

The alternative of course is accept that you will be tracked if you want to use the internet, and use private browsing for when you want to go looking at whatever dirty site takes your fancy.

For information, CallamMcMillan.com sets a number of cookies on your machine. A PHP session ID is set so that you can be tracked internally for authentication purposes. Google Analytics is also used which sets a number of 1st party cookies in order to collect information about your navigation of the site. Your IP address or personally identifying information is not collected. These are set automatically when you visit the site. If you consent to keeping the cookies, then a further cookie will be set to remove the message, if you reject the notice, you will be taken to my special page explaining why you’re a bit daft… Enjoy and remember to click the accept button!

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