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Privacy on the Internet

You can read the intro to why I decided to write this article if you like.

Privacy has become a hot topic.  There are bills about internet privacy in various countries (Canada's is in place...  I believe the U.S.  One is still pending).  But people seem to wonder "what it's all about".

IP ADDRESSES (you're a number now!) - Part I

Hi, my name is 24.70.9.66  What's yours?  It's almost getting that bad! *laugh*

Most of you likely know that every website has what's called an IP address.  You can visit our site by going to 

http://www.dltk-kids.com

or you can visit our site by going to the IP address

They are exactly the same place.

You have an IP address too.  Every time you fill in a form on the internet, your IP address is attached to it.  My number is 24.70.9.66 (er, and my name is Leanne -- not that it matters anymore *grin*)

How do I know?  Er, well...  When I first did the feedback form I couldn't figure out how to STOP the computer from sending me the IP address of the people who filled out the feedback.  (I hadn't even realized people had ip addresses...  I have mentioned that I'm a technically inept webmaster haven't I?  *wink*).   

Once I realized that form filling attached the number, I figured some people might be uncomfortable filling out forms so you'll notice that in the feedback and newsletter signup areas I've included a no-form option.  (to be honest though, if you researched you'd likely discover that sending emails attaches your number somehow too...  I have no idea if this is the case but it would seem logical).
 

THE PROS - FORMS:

Now, before you get too upset that you've been "numbered" think of it from the webmaster's perspective.

I run a discussion group on the site.  It's the only place where you can cause my website to change.  I can't control what people add or what they say.  I do check the group once a day to ensure there's nothing inappropriate on there (I've only had to remove smutty material once).

In the discussion group I do keep track of the IP address of the person who adds information.  I don't know how off hand, but I know there is a way to "track you down" through that.  There is also a way to tell my website to "ignore" a certain person (not let them post things) or to email me a copy of what that number posts so I can check it out right away.

Keeping the numbers visible in that area helps me warn the "nasty people" out there that I know how to find them.

People who run chat rooms would use them the same way.  The numbers enable them to "filter out" the nasty people (repeat offenders anyways).
 

THE CONS:

For every good use of a tool, several hundred bad uses seem to arise *sigh*.

So you go to a site and fill out a form -- just your name and email address let's say for a free daily jokes newsletter.

Pretend these same people own a second website that sells an array of things.

They (or any other website owner) can go purchase a list of IP addresses (those numbers we all have) along with various stats about them.  These stats may include demographics, household income, where you live, hobbies and internet purchase preferences.

Suddenly you start receiving emails (unsolicited) from their sales website targetted to your hobbies.  I hate junk mail!

Or perhaps the ads you start seeing when you visit their sites relate more and more to your interests and the place you live (truth be told, I don't actually mind the targetted ads...  The more this happens, the less I'll see the gambling and other ads I don't care for and the more I'll see children's content ads many of which take me to content I actually enjoy).

All of this information can be collected from a number of places.  Things like making purchases in the past on the internet, the sites you've visited (we'll talk about this in a future article...  For now just be aware that I can tell what site you came from and what site you go to from here... so, for example, if you jump from a craft site to bookseller_x.com they may assume crafts are a hobby of yours and add that to their ever-growing list of info).

The lists may be made up entirely from internet info, but it's not unheard of that they're compiled from a combination of form filling, site visiting and non-internet sources.  There are central "info compilers" that compile the info from various sources and re-sell it to various people.

So here's a question...

How many of you have filled in your mutual funds and stocks owned to keep track of your "profile"?  How many of you read the privacy policy of the site where you did it?  No...  You didn't have to put in your real name on the stock page, but did they say they wouldn't sell it to the info compilers?  And on that daily jokes page you likely didn't think it mattered much that they had your name.  And on that really cool bookseller_x.com site there was this book you wanted so you gave them your address...

Before you get too wound up, keep in mind that all of this costs money.  The compilers have to pay their various sources and they charge for all this info.  People change service providers frequently and when they change, their IP addresses change so this "knowledge" doesn't last forever.  99.9% of the website owners don't care and certainly wouldn't pay good money just to find out what kind of orange juice you drink and whether you made any money in the market last year.  I certainly wouldn't!

The IP address system isn't perfect...  When I said my name is 24.70.9.66 that's not really true...  That's my computer's name.  My husband, children and myself all share the same computer.  If they're targeting children's ads at Darren they likely won't have much response.  If they're targeting sports ads at me they're out of luck too.

The more people who share the IP address, the more useless that address is to the compilers.  One day I fill out a form as a 30 year old stay at home mom and the next day I fill it out as a 29 year old male accountant.  Pretty big difference in our potential preferences.
 

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO STOP IT:

Unfortunately for website owners like me who just want to keep nasty people from posting nasty messages on my family oriented discussion board, but fortunate for those of you who'd prefer to surf without people knowing your business there are a bunch of programs out there now that are meant to protect your privacy.

The first good news is all the bills passed by the various government bodies.  Although this is good, the world wide web really is world wide.  The compiler just has to live somewhere that doesn't have such a bill.  It's very tough for governments to maneuver in this new web-era as their power stops at their border and the web doesn't.

 


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