Can we remember a time when we could not tweet, post, email, blog, snap, or like someone online? Many people today have grown up being able to do all of these things. But there was a time when none of this was possible. What makes this possible today is what we call the Internet.
According to Webopedia, the Internet is a worldwide system of connected networks. Each network consists of millions of computers, servers, routers, and printers. We can think of the Internet like the telephone network or the interstate highway system. We may have even heard people refer to the Internet as the Information Super Highway. The networks that make up the Internet may be owned and maintained by different companies but messages and data move across all of them without regard to ownership because they all use the same protocol or language to communicate.
Who Created the Internet?
According to Hobbes' Internet Timeline, in 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit. While this might not sound serious, this happened during a time in American history called the Cold War. It was at this time the threat of nuclear war was at its greatest. The thought was, if the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, then they might be able to launch a nuclear bomb and hit the United States, destroying all of our communication lines.
The Internet began in 1969 as a research project funded by the Department of Defense with a goal of creating a means of communication beside telephone lines. The first network was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Project Agency NETwork). The focus was on communicating in the event part of the network was disabled. This early network was the precursor to the Internet. It was limited in function but launched the idea of a different method of communication.
How Does Information Move Across the Internet?
Information moves across the Internet much like UPS delivers packages. When we order something, it could be boxes in multiple packages because one box would be too large to deliver. A message or webpage is broken down into packets to be delivered to our computer. Each packet has addressing information so that it knows where it is going. Our message or webpage could be broken down into many packets and each packet will have the address and the number of the packet so that when it gets to its final destination our computer or email server will know how to put the packet together to make a meaningful message.
In the beginning, most information moved across telephone lines using a modem and dial up connection. This method of connection, slow and unreliable, is still available. Today, though, we have connections, such as ISDN - Integrated Service Digital Network, DSL - Digital Subscriber Line, T1 and T3 lines, which provide faster speeds. We can also get the Internet over our local cable TV lines and by satellite. No matter how we connect to the Internet, it has likely become a vital part of our everyday life.
Electronic mail has become an essential form of communication. Modern e-mail operates across the Internet, but the use of e-mail actually predates ARPANET. Some of the earlier e-mail systems date back to the mid-1960s, including the Automatic Digital Network, or AUTODIN, by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Compatible Time-Sharing System by MIT. These early systems worked on a limited number of terminals across relatively small networks. The systems were also not compatible with each other.
As ARPANET grew in importance, standards were developed for e-mail communication. The first ARPANET e-mail was sent in 1971, using the @ symbol to separate the name of the user from the user's machine. The most widely used e-mail standard, called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP, was developed in 1982.
Standardization led to a significant increase in the popularity of e-mail. In fact, e-mail was the first killer app of ARPANET and the Internet. A killer application is a computer program that is so useful and popular that it proves the core value of some larger technology. In this case, e-mail really demonstrated the usefulness of the Internet.
Browsing the Internet
As we move from site to site online, sophisticated methods can track and identify us. Almost all browsers give we some control over how much information is revealed, kept and stored. Generally, we can change the settings to restrict cookies and enhance our privacy. Most major browsers now offer a "Private Browsing" tool to increase our privacy. However, researchers have found that "Private Browsing" may fail to purge all traces of online activity. Many popular browser extensions and plugins undermine the security of "Private Browsing".
Do Not Track (DNT) is a setting in most major browsers that tells websites that we do not wish to be tracked. In order for DNT to work, the sites that we visited must agree to honour the preference to not be tracked. Although a few large companies have agreed to honour DNT, many have refused because DNT threatens advertising dollars.
Cookies. When we visit different websites, many of the sites deposit data about our visit, called "cookies," on our hard drive. Cookies are pieces of information sent by a web server to a user's browser. Cookies may include information such as login or registration identification, user preferences, online "shopping cart" information, and so on. The browser saves the information, and sends it back to the web server whenever the browser returns to the website. The web server may use the cookie to customize the display it sends to the user, or it may keep track of the different pages within the site that the user accesses.
However, there are some cookies, called third-party cookies that communicate data about us to an advertising clearinghouse which in turn shares that data with other online marketers. These third-party cookies include "tracking cookies" which use our online history to deliver other ads.
Browser and some software products enable us to detect and delete cookies, including third-party cookies. We can also download a Windows PC cleaning tool such as CCleaner.
Ghostery is a browser tool that scans webpages for trackers (including cookies) and notifies us of the companies whose code is present on the page we are visiting. Ghostery allows us to learn more about these companies and block their trackers from loading if we choose to do so.
Disconnect is a browser extension that stops major third parties from tracking the webpages we go to. Every time we visit a site, Disconnect automatically detects when our browser tries to make a connection to anything other than the site we are visiting.
We can also opt-out of the sharing of cookie data with members of the Network Advertising, Flash cookies. Many websites utilize a type of cookie called a "flash cookie" (sometimes also called a "supercookie") that is more persistent than a regular cookie. Normal procedures for erasing standard cookies, clearing history, erasing the cache, or choosing a delete private data option within the browser will not affect flash cookies. Flash cookies thus may persist despite user efforts to delete all cookies. They cannot be deleted by any commercially available anti-spyware or adware removal program. However, if we use the Firefox browser, there is an add-on called "BetterPrivacy" that can assist in deleting flash cookies:
Fingerprinting. A device fingerprint (or machine fingerprint) is a summary of the software and hardware settings collected from a computer or other device. Each device has a different clock setting, fonts, software and other characteristics that make it unique. When we go online, our device broadcasts these details, which can can be collected and pieced together to form a unique "fingerprint" for that particular device. That fingerprint can then be assigned an identifying number, and used for similar purposes as a cookie.
Fingerprinting is rapidly replacing cookies as a means of tracking. Tracking companies are embracing fingerprinting because it is tougher to block than cookies. Cookies are subject to deletion and expiration, and are rendered useless if a user decides to switch to a new browser. Some browsers block third-party cookies by default and certain browser add-ons enable blocking or removal of cookies.
Unlike cookies and flash cookies, fingerprints leave no evidence on a user's computer. Therefore, it is impossible for us to know when we are being tracked by fingerprinting.
When we correspond through e-mail we are no doubt aware that we are giving information to the recipient. We might also be giving information to any number of people, including our employer, the government, our e-mail provider, and anybody that the recipient passes our message to. An unencrypted e-mail message can potentially be seen by anyone while in transit. If sent from an employer-owned device, it could be read by our employer.
If we use a webmail service such as Gmail or Yahoo, our e-mails could be scanned by the webmail provider, both to detect spam and to deliver advertising content. Gmail scans incoming e-mails and places relevant advertisements next to the e-mail. Yahoo Mail says that it performs "automated content scanning and analysing of communications content.” If our recipient uses Gmail, Google will scan our message and provide advertisements to the recipient even if we, the sender, do not use Gmail. Microsoft's webmail service Outlook.com states that it does not use the content of customers’ emails to target advertising.
The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) makes it unlawful under certain circumstances for someone to read or disclose the contents of an electronic communication (18 USC § 2511).
ECPA is a complicated law and contains many exceptions. ECPA makes a distinction between messages in transit and those stored on computers. Stored messages are generally given less protection than those intercepted during transmission. Here are some exceptions to the ECPA:
The ISP may view private e-mail if it suspects the sender is attempting to damage the system or harm another user. However, random monitoring of e-mail is generally prohibited. The ISP may legally view and disclose private e-mail if either the sender or the recipient of the message consents to the inspection or disclosure. Many ISPs require a consent agreement from new members when signing up for the service.
If the e-mail system is owned by an employer, the employer may inspect the contents of employee e-mail on the system. Therefore, any e-mail sent from a business location is probably not private. Several court cases have determined that employers have a right to monitor e-mail messages of their employees.
Services may be required to disclose personal information in response to a court order or subpoena. A subpoena may be obtained by law enforcement or as part of a civil lawsuit. The government can only get basic subscriber information with a subpoena. The government needs a search warrant to get further records. A subpoena as part of a private civil lawsuit may disclose more personal information.
Behavioural marketing or targeting refers to the practice of collecting and compiling a record of individuals' online activities, interests, preferences, and/or communications over time. Companies engaged in behavioural targeting routinely monitor individuals, the searches they make, the pages they visit, the content they view, their interactions on social networking sites, and the products and services they purchase. Further, when consumers are using mobile devices, even their physical location may be tracked. This data may be compiled, analysed, and combined with information from offline sources to create even more detailed profiles.
Marketers can then use this information to serve advertisements to a consumer based on his or her behavioural record. Ads may be displayed based upon an individual's web-browsing behaviour, such as the pages they have visited or the searches they have made. Advertisers believe that this may help them deliver their online advertisements to the users who are most likely to be influenced by them.
Behavioural information can be used on its own or in conjunction with other forms of targeting based on factors like geography or demographics. Marketers have developed an array of sophisticated data collection and profiling tools which monitor and analyse our online activity. Over 1300 tracking companies utilize more than 2800 tracking scripts to deliver advertising that is targeted consumers' online activity.
Typically, behavioural targeting is accomplished through use of a cookie, flash cookie, device fingerprinting, or other technologies that identify a user or device. Whatever the technology used, it attempts to personalize ads based upon the user's online history and possibly other external data.
It is difficult to come up with a precise definition of cloud computing. In general terms, it’s the idea that our computer’s or device's applications run somewhere on the “cloud”, that is to say, on someone else’s server accessed via the Internet. Instead of running program applications or storing data on our own device, these functions are performed at remote servers which are connected to our device through the Internet.
In telecommunications, a “cloud” is the unpredictable part of any network through which data passes between two end points. In cloud computing the term is used to refer generally to any computer, network or system through which personal information is transmitted, processed and stored, and over which individuals have little direct knowledge, involvement, or control.
With more reliable, affordable broadband access, the Internet no longer functions solely as a communications network. It has become a platform for computing. Rather than running software on our own device or server, Internet users reach to the “cloud” to combine software applications, data storage, and massive computing power.
It’s interesting to note that cloud computing is really nothing new. It's the modern version of the 1960’s-era computer timesharing model. That model was based upon the high cost of computers at that time. With computer and data storage prices plummeting, it seems odd that there would be a return to that sort of model.
Who provides cloud computing services and what services do they provide?
It’s a bit easier to understand the concept of cloud computing by providing examples. Google operates several well-known cloud computing services. It offers its user’s applications such as e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets and storage, and hosts them "in the cloud"--in other words, on its own servers, not ours. So, for example, we can type a document without maintaining any word processing software on our computer or device. We can use Google’s software “in the cloud”. All we need is an Internet capable device.
Cloud computing services also may allow we to synchronize files between our Internet accessible devices, so that we can see a file from our home or office computer on a mobile device. Some of best known consumer-oriented cloud services include:
Other examples of cloud computing include:
The above services are ready to use “out of the box”. In addition, many cloud computing companies offer customized cloud computing services tailored to the specific needs of businesses and other organizations.
Some of the major players in cloud computing include:
What are the risks of cloud computing?
When users store their data with programs hosted on someone else's hardware, they lose a degree of control over their sensitive information. The responsibility for protecting that information from hackers, internal breaches, and subpoenas then falls into the hands of the hosting company rather than the individual user. This can have many possible adverse consequences for users.
The location of the host’s operations can significantly impact a user’s rights under the law. The location of the records might not be disclosed in the terms of service or might be changed without notice. This could have substantial legal consequences. Government investigators or civil litigants trying to subpoena information could approach the hosting company without informing the data's owners. The hosting company generally does not have the same motivation as the user to defend against disclosure of the information.
Some companies could even willingly share sensitive data with marketing firms. So there is a privacy risk in putting our data in someone else's hands. Obviously, the safest approach is to maintain our data under our own control. There is also a risk that the host might shut down its operations, declare bankruptcy, or sell the business to another provider.
What might happen to our data if that were to happen?
Unexpected service disruptions can prevent cloud computer users from accessing their data or performing vital business functions.
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