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When we go online, it seems as if we are operating in a private, protected world. Everywhere we go, we are required to use passwords, and we can go just about anywhere and talk to anyone without revealing anything about the details of our lives if we so choose.
But this is an illusion. All around us are unscrupulous operators who want to exploit us by invading our privacy and stealing our personal information for their own use. There are companies that sell software that allows their clients, usually online merchants, to surreptitiously track everything we do online, so that those clients can use that information to try and sell us their products.
Some will claim that while this sounds a little outrageous, it is not the end of the world, since those who track us using this technology are only trying to find out about our buying habits so they can find out if we are potential consumers of their products and services. This viewpoint, however, is naive, and a lawsuit that has just been filed in a federal court in Chicago helps to reveal why we should not be pacified by these facile reassurances.
The ComScore Scandal
ComScore is one of the largest online audience measurement and customer tracking companies in the world, with 1,800 customers including electronic commerce sites, retailers, ad agencies, and publishers of various materials. ComScore sells software that will allow its clients to closely monitor the online activities of anyone unfortunate enough to have that software downloaded onto their computer. The companies and individual retailers who obtain this software don’t ask anyone’s permission to download it onto the machines of unsuspecting consumers, at least not directly. In most cases, these tracking programs are downloaded as a part of free offers for screen savers, music sharing software, sweepstakes offers, and so on. Basically, anything that is offered to you for free online could have code attached that will allow ComScore customers – or those doing business with similar companies – to follow you around as you navigate your way through Internet sites and your own personal files and records.
Needless to say, allowing this kind of activity to go on legally is just inviting abuse, and according to those who have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against ComScore, this company is guilty of some peculiarly egregious misconduct. Apparently, ComScore’s software has been used to collect passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and other types of highly personal information that no one in their right mind would ever want to be in the hands of strangers. ComScore’s software also has been accused of selling software that can actually change computer security settings, steal information from emails and word processing documents, and create all kinds of secret entrances that allow outsiders to infiltrate people’s personal files and programs at their will. Basically, ComScore has created software programs so invasive that there is literally nothing anyone can do to keep their most sensitive and important personal information off limits.
“Look, Inside Your Computer – It’s Super Cookie!”
The pieces of digital code known as cookies are generally a welcome gift on your computer because of their ability to keep information stored and remembered for future reference. Without cookies, it would not be possible, for example, to have your passwords or personal information remembered so you don’t have to retype and resubmit all of these items each time you visit a particular website.
However, some cookies are downloaded onto computers by merchants in complete secrecy, so you have no idea that anything has actually happened. Once again, the idea is to track your online activity so online sellers know everything about who you are and what you are doing. Because of its ability to collect all of this information, this type of computer software has been given the moniker “supercookie.”
The use of this secret type of surveillance has increased dramatically over the years. If you are wondering why you get so many personalized pop-up adds or spam emails offering to sell you things that have some sort of tangential relationship to something you have been looking at online or have written about in an email, it is because of tracking software that has been installed on your computer without your knowledge.
Protecting Yourself While You Still Can
The ComScore scandal shows why the practice of online tracking is such a threat to our privacy and security. Once our most personal information gets out, there is no telling how it might be used or exploited by unscrupulous operators, and once this type of technology is let loose, it is inevitably going to get more sophisticated over time, until it becomes literally impossible to prevent interlopers from having complete and total access to your personal computer.
While the online tracking industry may someday become all but unstoppable if their activities are allowed to remain legal, at least for now there are some steps that can still be taken to protect your privacy in the digital world. There are free software programs available like SlimCleaner and CCleaner that are specifically designed to remove bad cookies and other similar programs, so a little research in that area should allow you to find something that will help you get rid of the nasty tracking stuff that no doubt has already been implanted on your computer. BetterPrivacy and NoScript are extensions you can get that will filter web scripts to prevent tracking programs from being downloaded without your knowledge in the first place, so you can take steps to protect yourself after getting rid of the infections that already exist.
No matter what kind of protective steps you take, the truth is that they will only be temporary solutions, and they will not provide you with the kind of ultimate protection from data theft you would prefer. Amazingly, people managed to get along just fine before the advent of cyberspace and the Internet, and one of the best ways you can protect yourself is to go back to doing things the old way. Taking care of your banking in person, ordering merchandise over the phone or purchasing it directly, getting rid of credit cards entirely, putting music or photos you want to share on CDs and mailing it to your loved ones – these are just a few of the ways to keep your information safe from online tracking by never putting it out there in public in the first place. And as far as your web activities are concerned, you should never ever accept anything for free when it is offered to you out of the blue, because you can never be sure what might be hidden behind that seemingly innocuous download some mysterious benefactor wants to send you out of the kindness of their heart.
The virtual world is outlaw territory, filled with more snakes and other sneaky ne’er-do-wells than the Old West could ever dream of. It is your responsibility to realize this and to understand that no one is going to protect you from information thieves and other types of cyber bandits. Your safety and security online are your problem, and it is up to you to take control of your own computer.
©2011 Off the Grid News