January 11, 2015
Throughout history, never has it been an invention that would revolutionize the way people communicate and share information. People went from having to go through a lengthy process of compiling information to having it instantly and at the tips of their fingers. The World Wide Web is considered one of the greatest achievements next to invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Today, people heavily rely on this technology as hours upon hours are spent by an individual to communicate with loved ones via social networks, store files online, work, and more. People don’t realize what the implications of relying on these services are and what information and data are being gathered from them.
Communication has always been a key element for any species. Different forms of communication have existed but one technology that has revolutionized communication in many ways its the Internet and the Web, a big part of it. Since its invention, people have been increasingly relying on it for many reasons. For the most part, it has been implemented as part of our lives in ways that no other form of communication has done. It, however, like other forms of technology, is not perfect and it has brought problems what many people are not aware. People are using this technology freely without thinking of the consequences.
To understand more about the World Wide Web, or simply the Web, it is important to first know a little about its parent technology, the Internet. So what is the Internet? It is simply a network, a vast system connecting computers across the world that share information through the wire and wireless networks. The Internet was first developed around the 1960s by the U.S Department of Defense as a way of sharing information and data throughout the military. As the technology improved and progressed, Universities and government computers were part of a network called ARPANET. The network grew to about 200 computers in 1981 and it was split in two, military computers were one and the other one is the network known today (Swanson) (Strickland). Chances are you are sitting in front of a computer attached to this network.
The Internet has several services that it offers called protocols which make things like the Web work. Here is a list of some of the protocols:
Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) - This protocol is used to serve data when requested by a client, also known as a browser, like Internet Explorer and Google Chrome. As Tim Berners-Lee describes it, “The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is an application-level protocol for distributed, collaborative, hypermedia information systems.”
Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) - This protocol is used to transfer electronic mail across the Internet, another tool people heavily rely on.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) - This protocol is used for transferring files across the Internet.
These are just some of the basic protocols that power the Internet but they do however play a big role in the success of this technology.
Now, what is the World Wide Web (WWW)? It is a system for publishing pages via a network known as the Internet, and it has been running since 1991. At first, It allowed for text to be transferred over the internet and it lets people jump easily from site to site via links. By using a Web browser, it made the process of accessing the pages on any computer in and outside of the network is made easier. It also allowed the internet to grow significantly since almost any operating system can have access to the Web by using a Web browser.
As with many other famous inventions, it all started with a problem that scientist had at a famous research center known as CERN or the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. The scientist would conduct long studies and experiments at CERN and then return home to their laboratories located around the world to review data from their experiments. A problem occurred when they wanted to share their data and results from those experiments, there was no easy way of doing it. Tim Berners-Lee was aware of this problem and realized the untapped potential of millions of computers that were connected through the Internet, he was motivated to find a solution. In late 1989 Tim Berners-Lee created a plan that would be known as the World Wide Web and presented it to CERN. The plan defined 3 of the technologies that would be used to create the World Wide Web as we know it today. Surprisingly enough, this plan was rejected at first but with his effort and push it was accepted by Cern at the end of 1990. He laid the foundation of the Web with three basic technologies: HyperText Markup Language(HTML) is the format of the Web and any document on the Web is written in this format. Uniform Resource Identifier(URI), basically an address given to a document on the Web, similar to a home address. HTTP allowed Web documents created in HTML to be retrieved and send through the Internet (History of the Web).
By design, the Internet and the Web have been venerable to security and privacy problems ever since they were invented because it was not on the minds of the people who created it. What first started as hacking phone lines to make free calls, known a “phreaking”, created the fundamentals for future hackers that would eventually break into other networks, steal valuable information, spy on people, and more. Hackers are able to accomplish this simply because the people who developed these technologies made programming errors that made their software venerable to exploits that would open the doors to allow them in. The web is also set up in client-server architecture on a peer-to-peer network that basically works like a file transfer system allowing the server to send you all of the files of a website, including malicious files if embedded, to your local machine after you request a website. In a way, you are opening a door every time you visit a website which could potentially be used in a malicious way (Judge).
The topic of privacy on the Internet and Web is no strange one, in fact, it can lead to a very controversial topic with mixed opinions simply because of privacy a relative to a persons point-of-view, beliefs, and the fact that it’s a new idea of privacy. As Brandeis and Warren explain people’s privacy in the modern world, > “To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle. The intensity and complexity of life, attendant upon advancing civilization, have rendered necessary some retreat from the world, and man, under the refining influence of culture, has become more sensitive to publicity, so that solitude and privacy have become more essential to the individual; but modern enterprise and invention have, through invasions upon his privacy, subjected him to mental pain and distress, far greater than could be inflicted by mere bodily injury. Nor is the harm wrought by such invasions confined to the suffering of those who may be the subjects of journalistic or other enterprises. In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things. Triviality destroys at once robustness of thought and delicacy of feeling. No enthusiasm can flourish, no generous impulse can survive under its blighting influence.” (Brandeis).
What does it mean? In simple terms, it can mean that people are willingly giving up their privacy to achieve fame through T.V shows, blogs, social networks, and other types of communication. People personally streaming on social networking sites most, if not all, major details of their lives without thinking about the consequences. However, even if people tried to achieve complete privacy on the Internet and Web it wouldn’t happen simply due to how these technologies work.
By simply going to a website you are giving up a lot of information which most servers log. The type of data a server log depends but here what is information is logged in general (Web Server Logs Data Collection Fields)
This is just some of the basic information a server collects about people. However, the server is not the only thing collecting your information. Services like Google Analytics, Leadformix, Marketo, and many other similar services collect large amounts of data about their users. Browser and search history, location, videos you watch, links you click, devices you use, and any other activity is tracked by these services. Marketing and analytics services like the ones mentioned before are not the only ones tracking people as services like DoubleClick, Facebook Connect, Disqus, and AddThis are installed on websites for functionality but they are also gathering all kinds of data. However, data itself is meaningless until it’s used for something.
It’s no secret that data about people is being collected all of the time but perhaps the most important questions are why? Many companies use the data to know more about their customers and learn how to better interact with them. It helps companies build relationships, make smart decisions, and reach a bigger audience. As Ohad Hecht explains,
“We are using big data to understand our business better: from our business [key performance indicator], clients’ behavior, and interactions with our company,”
“We combine [customer relationship management] data, financial data, HR data, billing, and bank data into a single big data warehouse and visualize it in different dashboards that target information needed for decision-making in different areas of the business.”
Collected data can be used to target people with relevant ads, information, suggestions, and more. It can be thought of as predicting users next action based on the information gathered from them, which to some extent can benefit the user.
However, data is not always used the right way and privacy problems can occur. Having an excessive amount of data about an individual can lead to a person feel like their privacy has been compromised in many ways. Companies value data a user generates more than expected, especially marketers. This data too is not always secure and the servers where it’s stored can be vulnerable to hackers. Data breaches are possible and there is no sure way of protecting it, especially once it’s out on the Internet. Just as it is easy for you to access data from the cloud, it’s easy for other companies, individuals, and especially the government. Email, images, files, and anything that you store on the web mostly belongs to the service provider and not the user. Some of that is to blame for outdated rules in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which companies use as a loophole. As Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson explains
“A huge concern about using the cloud is that your data does not have the same Fourth Amendment protections that it would have if it were stored in a desk drawer or even your desktop computer,”
Many service companies are taking advantage of this major loop to gather as much information as they can from the user and the information they stored since they have the freedom to do so. Government agencies are also taking advantage of this as they are increasingly requesting user data from service companies like Google and Facebook for investigations. However, some service companies don’t freely give out data,
“Cloud services aren’t just rolling over, though. For example, Google might comply with a subpoena to reveal the name, contact information, and login records of a Gmail subscriber. But Google would insist that the requesting authority obtain a court order requiring Google to provide greater levels of detail, such as the mail header for a message. In addition, Google would demand to see a search warrant before giving government investigators access to actual email content.” (Riofrio)
It is important to understand that complete privacy can be impossible to accomplish due to the number of services a person uses and by laws and regulations that make it unclear on how is treated and who it truly belong to. Most importantly, the user must be aware that any activity, information, and data is not private at all on the Internet. A user needs to understand the type of information they are providing to different services and how it’s going to be treated before using a service. It’s a responsibility that they must learn to better take care of their data and information online, to smartly choose what services they used and how they use them.
There is no doubt that the Internet and the Web changed the lives of people, it is a fact. What started as a project by the U.S government to share data ended up being a network that rapidly grew around the world connecting currently billions of people. However, security and privacy have always been an issue. People are freely using the Internet without thinking about the outcomes, especially the privacy implications. Information and data are being collected by service providers which have the freedom to do most anything given the loopholes found in the current system. It’s also important to understand that a user must start valuing and thinking more about their data and what services they use and share information with. This is is one of the steps to increase their privacy along with updating laws that allow this to happen. The Internet is a tool that people will continue to rely on simply because it is an effective and reliable way of communication that has become part of peoples lives.
Software Engineer @Pluralsight. Interested in distributed systems, machine learning, and the web. Follow me on Twitter.