The Internet is often regarded as the maximum free space in which much is possible. Unobserved surfing, free movement in almost unlimited space, infinite freedom. In fact, however, it has a number of downsides that are contrary to many of the basic assumptions we have about cyberspace. When we surf the net, we feel unobserved and safe. We sit in our living room at home and yet the whole world is open to us on a small screen. What we do not consider is the fact that it is not necessarily a one-way street. In a sense, the big, wide world also moves into our home living room when we enter the net. We are not as free and above all as unobserved as we feel.
However, this article is by no means intended to fuel fears or even spread panic. In the context of these lines, we would just like to take a look at a simple possibility of actually moving freely and unobserved in the net. The solution we would like to present is VPN (“Virtual Private Network”).
Our Tracks on the Net
If we go on the street, we can expect in the worst case with curious looks of the neighbours. At the latest when we have turned around the next corner, they no longer know where we want to go, what we are planning and where we are moving. The danger of being followed and observed on the road is low. We may leave tracks on traffic cams or in stores we enter. But off the beaten track of public life, we are largely invisible as long as we do not carry around any technical devices that enable us to locate them.
It’s different on the Internet. Here the curious glances of the neighbours are missing, who carefully pull out their binoculars behind their curtains. This lack of obvious curiosity makes us feel secure. There are no traffic cameras on the Internet and no surveillance equipment in petrol stations or supermarkets. We feel much freer and more unobserved. As long as no one literally looks over our shoulder, our online behavior remains secret, we think. Far from it!
In many cases we leave far more traces on the net than in the analogue world. The signs that point to this, however, are much more subtle than we are accustomed to from this very analogue world. Critical looks, binoculars and cameras are clear signs – we are not alone and under observation. On the other hand, advertising that happens to meet our taste is much less suspicious. Or search suggestions that randomly list results from our hometown at the top.
In fact, however, all of these are hardly to be surpassed in terms of clarity. The audition of personalized and location-based advertising can hardly be surpassed in its expressiveness. In the analogue world, it is almost unthinkable to strategically analyse all our steps, every appearance on market surveillance tapes and every movement and draw conclusions about our behaviour and preferences. We’d feel monitored, spied on, cheated and manipulated. In the net, which we consider to be a safe haven, all this is not only possible, but perfectly ordinary.
It is possible because of all the traces we leave with every click, every search query and every other activity. If we read an article, we can assume that there are various programs working in the background that analyze our behavior. What are we interested in? What makes us click on certain links? How long do we stay on certain pages? The more active we are on the web and the more pages we visit, the more meaningful the profiles that can be created based on our movements and behaviour become.
For advertisers, these collections and analyses are worth their weight in gold. They give us an idea of what we would like to have, what excites us, what delights us, what we like to do. It’s no coincidence that as a technology enthusiast you see advertisements for computers, smartphones and related accessories over and over again, while your sports-loving friend encounters advertisements for dumbbells and footballs.
At the latest since the general excitement surrounding the basic data protection regulation, a broader public has been aware of the extent to which various services collect data when we surf the net. Our IP address, our whereabouts, entire geographical profiles with frequent access points, interests, preferences, pages visited, etc. etc.
If we want to protect ourselves at least a little, not to disappear completely into filter bubbles, to become untraceable or simply to gain a greater feeling of security, VPN access is highly recommended.