Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Cookie Stalker I

Have you ever had that 'eerie sense' of being followed a sort of cross between 'deja vu' and what we sometimes call 'someone walking over your grave' sensation. Well as a blogger on the Internet, there are good reasons to want to be followed. Its a part of blogging to have that eerie sense of being followed. As some readers come and have a peruse at your latest ramblings some will choose to follow your blog. But in a way we are all being followed or 'stalked' on the Internet. Almost everyone is being watched in some way or other. Did you know that websites can gather a surprising amount of information about your computer. Its a bit like the postman telling your neighbours that you have been away on holiday and where you went.

In our example the Internet is like the postman on your street. Whenever you look at a website, your browser makes a page request to the website's server. The page request includes information about which browser you're using. To be exact it send information of the version, the way the browser is configured and the screen resolution being used. Other information that is shared includes what document you're requesting and the individual IP address you are using. The IP address will have been allocated to your Internet service provider. They will also know with some certainty which country you are in. They could also figure out which county and maybe even which city. Thats a lot of information and you only clicked on a web page address in a browser. 

Clicking on a website also allows the server to place a small text file on your PC called a 'cookie'. Cookies can contain information such as the time and date that you visited the site. Which pages you viewed and a unique identifier for each and every visitor.  When you next connect to the website's server, it can update its records of previous visits. These are the 'friendly' cookies. Unfriendly cookies can be used track your movements from site to site around the Internet, and they might be collating more information about you than you really want to give. In a way, you are still anonymous by name, but the webservers have your computer and internet browsing fingerprints. There are companies who specialise in tracking individual computers and their users. They will have collated much more than a small amount of information about your online activities which they can and will analyse in detail.

So what are the real dangers of surfing on the internet. Very little really.  The main danger comes from  joining social sites such as Facebook. Such sites will contain a lot of your personal information. Often as a requirement for joining, you will have to include your name and address. Who do the social sites exchange your information with. Now, you are no longer anonymous. Your information is now a commodity of value and for sale!

I hope you are worried about being tracked and traced on the internet, because you should be. Being a little bit worried and protective about your identity means that you are much less likely to be identifiable. Have a look at the following bit of software if you have Firefox or Chrome as your web browser. It will give some idea of the information that has been tracked about your on-line activities. The software is Collusion and it comes in flavours as an add-on for different browsers. I use Google Chrome as my browser and the Collusion add-on is available here. Collusion can graphically show the various connections between websites that you have visited. Install and then brows the net as normal and Collusion will build a graphical picture of who shares with who.


Continued in The Cookie Stalker II

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