Twenty years ago, Peter Steiner created the cartoon to your right; showcasing how the web liberated people from being tied to a specific race, age or gender; it was not possible to tell whether a 16-year old kid or a 48-year old woman wrote an article. It was not possible to tell whether it was a Canadian or an Australian, who uploaded the photograph of their [censored] chewing on a [removed to protect the privacy of those involved]. And because it was not possible to tell, therefore it did not matter.
A lot has happened in those twenty years; governments and corporations have realised that liberation of the masses is a dangerous thing; to their minds, it mattered…and it had to be controlled. One of the primary ways that your privacy is shredded online is through “voluntary” services that suggest they offer you a benefit – and hope that you don’t realise what you’re actually giving away. So many websites began asking you questions that seemed innocuous, but were actually designed to allow you to be controlled; so that Chinese authorities could make sure you were unable to view photos of Tiananmen Square, American authorities could make sure you were unable to view magazines published by “enemy” countries, and corporations were able to gather all your information to sell you as a data-package.
Popular examples include Facebook asking you to “verify your account” by providing a phone number, or a messageboard sending you an eMail with an “activation link”, or Skype wanting to send you a text message to confirm your contact details, a contest asking for your postal code, Hotmail asking for your birthday, an adult site asking you for a credit card number to verify you’re an adult, Paypal asking you the name of your oldest child or your favourite uncle…starting to see a pattern here? The scariest part is that most of us just freely hand that information over; the perils of Orwell’s 1984 are not being forced on us at the barrel of a gun, but with the promise of a really cute photograph, awesome song, or new service if we voluntarily submit.
But there are so many dangers here; imagine if you left your eMail address logged in and somebody sat down at your computer; suddenly, they would not only have access to your eMail, they could see all the activation eMails that had been sent to you over the years…remember signing up for hornyandsingle.net three years ago? No? Well, anybody with access to your inbox might be able to discover that detail. Ever wondered how your ex-boyfriend managed to get your new cellphone number off a website like Radaris or Pipl? Simple, you once entered your phone number in your Paypal account, and since then Paypal offered to sell that information to Radaris or Pipl for a penny, they made it public…and now your privacy is shattered.
What can you do? Well, learn how to avoid those sorts of traps – cyberlibertarians have been devising ways around these pitfalls for ages; trying to keep your privacy protected at all costs. So here is a partial list of ways to be a smarter web user…