Thursday, 30 March 2017 23:49

You want real web privacy? Get ready to pay for it


As government chisels away at internet privacy protections, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have developed a system they say will give you more anonymity in cyberspace.

The catch: You’ll probably have to pay for it.

To start with, it’s important to remember that every single thing you type online gets stored as data, no matter what kind of web protection software you own.

Sites like Google, Yelp, Kayak and others translate each request into a query, which gets stored in a database center.

With that in mind, the MIT-led research group has developed Splinter, a system that cuts the cord on that data flow without having to mask or delete the actual information.

Splinter allows websites to encrypt a user’s internet searches so they're never saved. The data is still out there, but is split among multiple database centers. That scrambles the search information a person has entered, preventing the websites from gathering information about the person who made the request.

“Data is floating around everywhere, so if you have anything on the internet, anyone can learn about it at some point. That’s scary,” said Frank Wang, an MIT graduate student who helped develop Splinter. “Your internet service provider is learning about you, so [we said] ‘How can we leak the least amount of information?’" 

Now, about that catch: Instead of relying on internet service providers to look out for your privacy, Splinter puts the power of protection into the hands of web services. The consumer cannot install the software. It's a system each company would have to incorporate into their own site.

Because consumers are demanding more privacy in their web browsing, they may be willing to pay for the privilege. And companies may be willing to satisfy that demand.

With Splinter, services could charge a nominal fee for queries, like maybe $5 a month. Wang said using Splinter costs a web service less than 2 cents per search.

"Web services could say, 'Hey, I charge you to [search for a flight], but I won't release any of that information or use your data,” Wang said. 

David O’Brien, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said the concept could open a window.

“It’s been discussed for years now and could be one alternative path,” he said. The problem, though, is that payment for privacy “hasn’t been supported by demand and maybe won’t ever be.”

But more people are demanding privacy, especially in the wake of both the House and Senate voting to repeal internet privacy protections adopted by the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration. That means that internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T would be able to share or sell information from a web user without that user’s permission.

Now more than ever, Wang said, "users are starting to care more about privacy, and the government is not regulating it as much as [people] wanted them to. So there’s an opportunity for web services to differentiate themselves and say, ‘We have a private offering.’” 

So what can you do, for free, to protect your privacy?

The best way to protect yourself is to practice abstinence, virtually, said David O’Brien of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“Unfortunately, the simplest answer is: Don’t use online services,” O’Brien said. “For most people, that doesn’t really fly. Short of that, a lot of services you can use obscure your identity online.”

Aside from that, O’Brien and MIT researcher Frank Wang suggested using Tor, a system that links your internet connection to multiple servers, placed all around the country or even the world. This means that when you go to a website like Google, it looks, to that website, “as if you’re coming from multiple different countries with each query you send.”

Another service, DuckDuckGo, is a search engine that promises not to track your queries.

Your computer or smart device's "Incognito" mode can be used in conjunction with these programs to provide a bit more privacy. It protects against targeted advertisements, but doesn't prevent companies from obtaining important data about the searches themselves.

In the end, O’Brien said, true privacy may be a dream. “It’s hard to be truly anonymous on the internet. It might even be impossible.”


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