Trail of Internet Footprints Dalton-in-Furness

While online, your computer has nonstop "conversations" with other computers. Records (or footprints) of these conversations remain behind. Trails marking your Internet activity are stored on servers you interact with online and on your own computer, often for a long time.

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Trail of Internet Footprints

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While online, your computer has nonstop "conversations" with other computers. Records (or footprints) of these conversations remain behind. Trails marking your Internet activity are stored on servers you interact with online and on your own computer, often for a long time.

Are Internet Footprints a Big Deal?

Those who attempt illegal or questionable activities or those with a stake in privacy have most to fear from this inevitable trail of footprints. For those within the law, privacy rights and identity theft are the big issues. (Click here to read more on identity theft .)

But sometimes it's hard to draw the line—when interests conflict, where does one's right to privacy end and another's begin? A recent California court case involving Apple Computer and several journalists reveals how fragile privacy rights are for both sides once information is transmitted online.

In late November, 2004, three journalists published articles online about a FireWire audio device Apple Computer is developing, each citing anonymous sources. In December, Apple Computer filed a lawsuit against those anonymous sources, and in February 2005, Apple subpoenaed the ISP for a website that published one of the articles in an attempt to access a journalist's email records. On March 11, 2005, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg ruled that Apple Computer has the right to see the ISP's email archives. Using these records, Apple will be able to locate the leak if the journalist communicated with the source electronically (For the full story, click here ).

Apple Computer lost its privacy rights to the journalists' free speech rights, yet Apple did not file charges against the journalists or the websites that published the articles. Assuming that the journalists didn't break any laws to obtain the product information in the articles, this case illustrates an interesting online privacy dilemma. If the journalists have not committed a crime, do they have the legal right to keep their email communications private? And—if Apple requests it—should they have the right to subpoena and examine the journalists' personal computers too?

At this point, the journalists undoubtedly regret leaving a trail of Internet footprints behind.

What Footprints Do I Make Online?

An email path is one of many footprints your Internet activities create. Here's a sampling of others:

While browsing:

  • Cookies attach to your computer allowing most websites to see how often you return
  • Search engines, toolbars and some websites keep track of your search terms
  • Clicking on ads (called referrers) reveals to the receiving website where you've been online
  • Webmasters can track the website you arrived from and which pages you visit on their website
  • You may pick up spyware, adware, or viruses online while browsing; these track your online activity several ways

While uploading and downloading:

  • Sending and receiving email creates a trail that connects you, through ISPs, back to the recipient or sender and email content is typically copied and saved several times along the way
  • Instant messaging content is not encrypted—anyone monitoring network traffic can capture and trace instant messages to the source
  • Making online purchases requires you to upload your personal and financial information—data that isn't encrypted is at risk
  • Software registration transmits personal contact information, data that isn't encrypted is at risk
  • Automatic software updates often perform downloads unannounced; have your computer alert you so you can approve downloads
  • Online services (such as online tax software) require frequent, secure data transfer—data that isn't encrypted is at risk
  • Accessories, such as Internet radio, Internet TV and Internet telephone conversations are not encrypted but are coded in binary formats; anyone with the proper reader can capture and decode and trace these transmissions
  • You may pick up spyware, adware, or viruses online from downloads or from opening infected email; these track your online activity several ways

How Do I Avoid and Erase Internet Footprints?

Remember, many online activities you consider private probably aren't. If you want more control, crank up your browser security settings so that your computer will warn you of uploads, downloads and other attempted changes more frequently.

You can avoid some Internet footprints—such as broadcasting your IP address—by using an anonymous browser to hide your computer identity. This is like wearing a mask; the websites you visit can tell you are on the website, but they can't tell where you're from.

Also, many firewall software packages offer Internet browsing in "stealth" mode. In this mode, your computer will not respond to the constant flow of queries your computer receives while online.

You can arm your computer with defense software such as anti-virus software and anti-spyware software to keep intrusive programs off your computer. If you want more privacy, consider a privacy software package that can clean your memory and erase footprints that online activity leaves on your computer, such as email records.

Finally, you can mask your email identity by using an anonymous email account. Of course, anonymous Internet tools are popular with those involved in nuisance and illegal email tasks (such as sending bulk spam) but these tools are also valuable to those with valid agendas (for example, to protect the identity of those who investigate spammers).

Most of the time, nobody cares about your online activities. But if your personal computer is ever compromised by a virus or spyware, hacked, or confiscated by someone who is interested in what you do online, having a few safeguards in place can keep your online computer activities private.

To compare privacy software features and read product reviews, see our Privacy Software Review Homepage .

References

Opsahl, Kurt. EFF.org: Court Crushes Online Journalists' Rights. (2005).

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