Privacy: Fingerprinting, Stingrays and Stick Figures

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stingraysThe other day I pulled up behind a mini-van at a stoplight. I laughed at the stickers affixed to the driver’s back windshield: Hot Moms Drive Mini Vans; I’m speeding because my kid has to poop; If this van is rockin, one of my kids threw up. Having been through that period in my life – and now having grandkids, I know the sometimes gallows humor of young family life.

However, to the right of me was another late model, very expensive minivan with its own set of stickers. Affixed against the dark tinted windows were 7, white stick figures representing mom, dad, three kids  a dog and cat. It struck me how much information about their family I immediately knew thanks to the simple, yet suburban-chic stickers. Then of course there was the obligatory football helmet decal of her son “Kyle’s” Catholic grade school team with his number 55… and Britney’s dance team sticker from the same school.

I stopped to think how easy it would be to find additional information about her family – just from the information on the back of her van.

For example, through no fault of her own, just looking at her state license plate I knew she was from Ohio and living in Warren County.  With today’s low-cost search companies and $2.95, I could have easily determined who the owner is and where she lives.

From her stickers I knew she was probably married, has 3 kids, a dog and a cat.

From her decals I knew her one son was named Kyle who plays football for a well-known, Catholic school in an upper-class neighborhood in that same county. I also know that her daughter Britney likes dance and attends that same school. The third child had not yet been raised to the status of suburban legend.

Any reprobate with the will to do harm was now armed with more information about her family than she realized. Fortunately, most of us don’t fall into that category – yet a few do.

Unknowingly, the same is often true during our online life. However, unlike the woman driving the minivan, we don’t knowingly give that information away.

Recently,  Princeton University did a study on just how much tracking is being done through the world’s top 1,000,000 websites as defined by Alexa. As one might assume, the broad shoulders of the Internet are bought and paid for by metadata that each of us leaves behind – and for which many companies are willing to pay.

Plain and simple, there were thousands of trackers out there that want your information. However, due to consolidation in that industry the large group of online marketing and data collection companies have shrunk to a little over 100 – many of whom are now owned by Google, Facebook or Twitter.

Most of these companies only want to know more about you so that they can sell you products in which they know you’ll have an interest. However, we all know too many horror stories of servers being hacked revealing boat loads of personal data about customers. Moreover, according to SC Magazine, a leading publication for security professionals, 43% of data theft comes from the employees of the companies collecting and holding the data. How much is stolen without the companies’ knowledge?

In a July 2016 article, that same magazine found that nearly a quarter of businesses claim that they stop a data breach every day. In short, there is no lacking of will to compromise corporate, government or personal data. How much is not stopped?

A common tool over the past two years used by data collection companies is a process known as “fingerprinting” or “Canvas fingerprinting.”

What that really means is that when you visit a website which employs such capability, the site asks your browser to “create a hidden image.” In essence, every device renders the image differently. To that end, the drawing from your computer is used to label your device with a unique number that allows trackers to monitor your browsing activity across the internet. You might navigate from site A to site B through Z – and everyplace you’ve been is captured with a unique identification that is essentially you. Over time, just your behavior paints a picture of your likes, dislikes and potential demons.

This is just one of the many ways your activity on the web can be monitored and monetized – even from the privacy of your own home.

You may be wondering – what kind of websites monitor and track users the most? According to the Princeton review, sites which have lost their traditional revenue streams are most prone to employ such tactics. These might include news sites, the arts, and sports – or any site that provides content without a charge. By collecting such data, it makes for higher ad sales revenue.

Conversely, sites owned by non-profits or governments tend NOT to track as often since they are funded through other means.

One note that all of us must understand – in theory, anything can be hacked or tracked. It generally is only limited by funding, knowledge or desire – not necessarily in that order.

We’ve all heard the issues about one political candidate erasing emails off of a private server. We know now that many of these emails were recovered through computer forensics. However, what is lost in that discussion is the Blackberry the candidate used oversees.

This issue is perhaps lost due to other issues that have clouded this election. However, there is a device manufactured by Harris Corporation, known as Stingray.  This technology is often used by local police to listen to private calls between common drug dealers. However, in the hands of bad actors or foreign powers, it can be used to listen to top secret conversations between heads of states. Yet most of us know nothing about that device or other similar devices – including government leaders that should be aware of such dangers. Much like the stickers on the back of a minivan, each of us  leaves a trail of information about our lives. In the case of communications, it can be in the form of data or metadata.

This is not to say that even a small amount of calls are being captured by local governments – or bad actors throughout the world. But to borrow an old English proverb, “Where there is a will there is a way.” NOT taking the necessary precautions when dealing with the public and contemporary technology is not only naïve, it flies in the face of responsible action and conventional wisdom.

One quick way to determine if your browser is protecting your private information is through Panopticlick.  Panopticlick is a non-profit research project designed to better uncover the tools and techniques of online trackers and test the efficacy of privacy add-ons. You can test your browser by clicking this hyperlink.

Now back to the minivan stickers. A few days after I saw the minivan that inspired this article I saw another mom with the same stickers, minus the image where the father is generally situated. In its place she had hand written in white shoe polish the words  “Position open, inquire within.”

I just had to laugh.


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