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True privacy online is not viable

Evan Schuman | Feb. 22, 2017
You can hide from casual observers, but a motivated person will see through your attempts at anonymisation

And even if the suspect could avoid purchasing patterns, would she be smart enough to change all of her habits? Her face could still be detected by facial-recognition software working with security cameras. And her car’s license plate could be detected driving on some interstate.

That’s all in the physical world. But the idea is the same for the online world. We habitually visit the same sites, tend to read stories the same amount of time and are prone to click on posts by the same people in our social circle. No IP-hiding VPN is going to change that.

The quip has often been made that privacy doesn’t exist anymore. Although it may not be that bad yet, the truth is that consumers cannot rely on any anonymity product as long as their behavior — their inclinations, their friends, their patterns — itself can be tracked.

When someone asks me, “Can I be tracked if I use XYZ privacy device?” the answer is, “It depends. Who are you worried about tracking you?” Privacy apps and devices are good low-level defenses, making a person difficult enough to track that it will, in effect, block most routine efforts.

Think of these apps/defenses as akin to installing a good high-security deadbolt on every door in your house. Will it block a thief who is being paid to steal documents in your house worth $40 million? Nope. There are windows with glass that can be cut, sledgehammers that can crash though the walls and then there’s always the thief who waits for you to unlock the door and then pulls a gun on you and follows you into the house. But that deadbolt will be enough to deter the low-level thief who is quite content to rob the house next door, the house that has no deadbolt.

I personally surf as often as I can in incognito mode, hiding my IP address with a VPN and surfing with Tor as often as I can. But there are enough sites that won’t work with that setup to make it difficult to use 24/7. (Although I did have fun discovering that when YouTube blocked me from seeing a video due to country copyright issues, all I had to do was change the country on my VPN settings and the video played fine.)

Bottom line: you can hide from advertisers and others well enough with privacy devices, but if someone really wants to track you, well, you can click, but you can’t hide.


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