Security in the Internet Age

It can be overwhelming to think deeply about what the technology companies are doing with our data. I think we were all feeling the change once we started seeing advertisements for products pop up on a news site just minutes after we were shopping for said products on another site. How could CNN or Huffington Post know that I was just shopping for Nike shoes on Amazon?

“What is this sorcery?!”  That was my gut reaction to realizing that every keystroke that I make while online can be tracked, traced, and spit back at me in a bid to sell me something. Nearly every web page that I visit is funded by either direct advertisements or by selling my information and online habits to companies that want to use it for their own profit.

In her article, “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff describes what she calls surveillance capitalism, which is the market created by Google and other tech companies to sell your data to third parties. I knew about the ubiquitous advertisements that fund my favorite web pages, and was aware that sites use cookies, but did not understand the extent to which companies were selling user data until recently. The implications of companies using that data in a way that is manipulative or even harmful is frightening.

I will admit to not being overly worried about having my shopping habits tracked for the sake of trying to advertise relevant products to me. What does worry me are the “off-label” potential uses and abuses of my data. Zuboff mentions car insurance companies using tracking data from cars to profile drivers based on their driving habits. The Internet of Things opens a whole new can of worms for surveillance opportunities. Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker is always listening, but who is paying attention? How is that information being used?

This is a similar worry about doing home DNA tests with companies such as or 23 and Me. The Golden State Killer was recently found and arrested based on DNA that was collected from him and matched against a database of DNA profiles. If my DNA will be used to catch a serial rapist/murderer all the better. But what about selling my DNA profile to pharmaceutical companies or medical insurers? How will that be used? Can DNA show markers for potential future illnesses that can be used by medical insurers to discriminate against patients by charging higher premiums? Can government step in and use our data to control us? We know from Edward Snowden that they are listening, but to what end?

As a result of this class, I will be taking a long hard look at how I use the internet and how I am making myself vulnerable to bad actors. I know that I have been too lax in my internet hygiene by not clearing my browser history and cookies regularly, not using strong enough passwords or not changing them regularly. It is my responsibility to ensure that I am safe online, not the companies whose priority is to make a profit.