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Proxy And Privacy Protection

For a long time now online security has been a very hot topic however, as part of online security, online privacy is probably the least addressed security issue. Online privacy can be seen as “the right to determine when, how and to what extent information about us is communicated to others.”

As you may know personal information collection and storage is a common practice for most web sites even though many of them do so without the user’s consent. In most cases, users are not even made aware of personal data collection not to mention that they do not have any control of their own information.

For home users, the online privacy issue has not been neither understood nor explained to the same extent as let's say viruses and hacking. IT profesionals themselves seldom think about privacy when surfing the WEB from home. Information about online privacy is scarce even though it is a big part of computer security. While there are online resources for educating home users on how to enhance computer security with anti-virus software and personal firewalls very few of them address personal information collection and how to protect against online privacy invasion.

Personal Data Collection

Some of the spam messages that you receive contain advertisements about the information you are interested in or are related to sites that you visited a few days ago. You have to wonder how these people know what I was interested in?

Every time you use a browser, your personal data is collected by most of the web sites you visit. Most of the times you are asked to enter your personal data (name, gender, date of birth, email, occupation, phone, company name) into all types of forms for countless reasons. What you are not aware of however is that your personal information can also be collected without your knowledge.

Now you are probably wondering how does this happen?

There are quite a few ways to accomplish this while users are surfing including but not limited to using scripts, applets, ActiveX controls, cookies, web bugs, etc. All the web sites use one or more of these methods. Some of them as scripts, applets, ActiveX controls and even cookies can be controlled by web browsers.

However browser do not treat web bugs, web bugs appear as graphics on a web page or email message and is used to track various statistics. Web bugs are invisible because they are only 1x1 pixel in size and match the background color of the page. Web advertising companies often use web bugs to monitor who is looking at the document.

When used in web pages, HTML code can be hidden behind web bugs, and used to collect information. When a web page is viewed, a web bug can collect and track:

  • your TCP/IP address
  • the current URL of the page
  • the URL of the web bug image
  • date and time the web bug was viewed
  • browser type
  • monitor resolution and browser settings
  • information about the site you are surfing from
  • your windows registry information
  • number of times you have viewed a particular web page
  • the pages you view within a web site
  • pages you viewed across many different web sites
  • the effectiveness of a banner ad campaign
  • search strings you used
  • previously input demographic data (gender, age, zip code,etc)

When used in email messages web bugs can be used to:

  • validate if a recipient’s email address is real and working
  • find out if a particular message has been read by the recipient and when
  • obtain the IP address of the recipient
  • obtain the recipient’s ISP, domain and other information
  • obtain information about how often this message has been read and forwarded

Web Referrer

Every time online users go from one web page to another, the browser sends a header to the web server hosting the new page that includes:

  • The requested page
  • A status code indicating success or error
  • Browser type
  • Screen resolution
  • Local date and time
  • TCP/IP address
  • URL of previous page

The url of the previous page is called the “web referrer”. Referrer data gets sent for every click, even when the pages are within the same site and can be used to profile your surfing habits. In case of search engines, most of them include the search phrase in the referrer information, so the next site not only knows which search engine you came from, but also what you were searching for.

In some cases, referrer information is not available. For example, if a user selected a link from a bookmark or their favorites, typed the URL directly, or clicked on the link included in an email message, no referrer information gets sent. In these cases, cookies and web bugs may be used instead.

We could go on and on about online privacy threats but the scope of this article is limited to emphasizing the benefits of using a proxy as a privacy protection method so let us see how can a proxy help.

A Proxy sits between the web browser and the Internet and filters the conversation between browsers and the web sites by examining all the packets coming in to the user’s web browser. The user is seen by the websites he visits as surfing from the proxy's geographic location using proxy's ISP. That alone gives you the means to protect the geographic location and access to ISP information. However proxies alone can not guarantee your privacy protection when used with other tools like WebWasher they will give you the means to regain control over your personal information by allowing you to select how much information you want to share.

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