GEEKNOTE: Various NSA related hash tags popped to the top of Twitter this past week as news broke about the NSA’s data mining operation.
My favorite was this one:
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you…
Another good one:
#nsacalledtotellme the GPS device under my SUV could use a new battery.
The paranoid among us will immediately jump to the conclusion that the government is watch everything we do online and everything we say on the phone.
The truth is likely much more frightening.
By all accounts the NSA activities disclosed this past week involve so-called “meta-data” that looks at trends, such as the phone numbers used to make phone calls overseas to known terrorist numbers.
Other branches of the government, most notably the military, are involved in seeing what other countries are doing to try to compromise our security. Even supposed US efforts to reprogram centrifuges in other countries don’t really bother me.
I don’t call anyone in the middle east and I certainly don’t own any centrifuges in Iran. If the NSA wants to listen in on my conversations with my various granddaughters, all I ask is that they send me a transcript explaining what the grandkids are actually trying to tell me. Likewise, if they enjoy the latest “grumpy cat” meme that I posted on facebook, all I ask is that they click “like”…
Corporations, on the other hand, are continuously looking at our online activities. They do this with “cookies” that are little pieces of tracking code.
Most cookies are benign. When I visit a website and it needs to keep track of my clicks during my visit, that is fine. A good example is any website with a shopping cart. The website needs to know what we’ve put in our shopping carts so we can actually buy the stuff we want.
Where things get a little scary is when websites share cookie information with other websites. I have an attorney client who recently had problems with his website. I did a number of online tests to determine exactly why he was having problems. Last week, I visited Foxnews.com and was presented with an advertisement from a domain registrar that I do not normally use offering me a variation of my client’s domain name. Clearly, one of the sites I used to check on the real domain’s health shared that information with Fox News and the registrar that was advertising on the Fox News website.
One of the reasons that so many “free” programs that you can download come with browser toolbars is that the toolbars come with search features and your search activities are collected by the toolbar owners so they can serve up advertisements. If the ads and popups weren’t bad enough, Internet Explorer frequently grinds to a halt when you get six, eight, or even ten of these toolbars all installed and demanding computer time.
Quite a bit of the malware out there is also looking to steal your personal information.
What can we do? Let me give you some suggestions:
First off, don’t use your company computer for personal stuff. It is entirely possible that your company has installed off the shelf software that tracks every keystroke you make and every website you visit while at work. It is the company’s machine. If your company has you sign an agreement stating that company machines are not to be used for personal stuff, you need to take that seriously.
Second, keep the number of toolbars installed on your browser to a bare minimum. You can uninstall extra toolbars using the add/remove programs applet in the control panel.
Third, take a look at the privacy settings in your browser. You can tighten things up to minimize the amount of tracking that is happening when you surf the web. Be advised though that honoring those tracking settings is optional and the bad actors out there will ignore the settings.
Finally, periodically scan your computer for programs that may have compromised your system and be sharing your activities with the outside world. Two of my favorite programs in this regard are Malwarebytes and Spybot Search & Destroy, both of which are free downloads from http://www.downloads.com.
In summary, while the NSA “might” see your meta-data within the massive amounts of data that they are sifting through, they likely couldn’t care less. On the other hand, corporations data mining your surfing habits are highly interested in what you find interesting and they will do their best to customize their marketing to match your interests.
Feel free to contact me if you are concerned about how much data may be leaking off your computer or business network.
As always, feel free to drop me a note or give me a call (847-2424) if you have any questions about your computer or the Internet.
Rob Marlowe, Senior Geek
Gulfcoast Networking, Inc.