Web privacy is not an option for most of us

by George Hatjoullis

big brother

big brother (Photo credit: Vince_Lamb)

As a middle-aged man I am always slightly behind the curve when it comes to technology but I always get there in the end. Unlike most men, I am always happy to ask for help but will also persevere until I solve whatever problem I have. I recently relieved my son of an iPod for a small consideration. If there is wi-fi around it functions like a little computer. However I am always nervous of unsecured wi-fi. So when I came across an article on Twitter (where else) about something called Hotspot Shield, I thought I would give it a go.

I installed the free elite trial on my iMac and my iPod. Almost immediately I started having problems with Google search and AOL mail. Hotspot it seems does not just protect but somehow affords me privacy. The full service description can be found here (http://www.hotspotshield.com/). Apparently I was now surfing the web anonymously. Not through Google I was not! Google became very indignant and announced that some of the traffic from my computer was suspicious and that I might be a robot (!?). It then referred me discretely to its terms and conditions of which it thought I might be in breach. Apparently using Google anonymously is a breach of Google’s terms and conditions. On reflection this made perfect sense as the business model for Google is all about big data and targeted advertising.

AOL was equally indignant. Hotspot had triggered its security protocols and it was concerned that my account had been hacked. I could not send emails and probably had stopped receiving them. It required me to individually confirm a whole stream of emails that had been sent by me. It required me to reconfirm details and change passwords and then made the whole process impossible to complete. By this time I had clocked that Hotspot was the problem. So I uninstalled it and revealed myself to the web-world again and everything settled back to normal. It may be that someone more tech savvy could incorporate Hotspot with these services but for me it is too much trouble. However, the whole exercise was very educational.

It seems one can have partial anonymity against other web users but not against the web service providers. They must know who you are and where you are and what you had for breakfast. It is part of the conditions of use. Moreover they can do pretty much what they want with this information (do read the terms and conditions when you have spare week or are suffering from insomnia) including hand it over to a government and not necessarily your own. The ‘free’ services on the web actually come at a very high price.

The individual seeking anonymity on the web ,for whatever reason, needs to basically set up a web alternative to many services. This is beyond most. For most of us it is a choice between not using the web or using it and letting big brother watch our every click. As more and more become fully aware of the extent of the watching, web behaviour will change. However, I cannot function without Google search, email and much other stuff so I live with my web nakedness. I expect most of us will choose to do so.