Are you really anonymous on the internet? Despite your best efforts, the ubiquitous artificial intelligence and surveillance systems around you may reveal your identity and activity to anyone with access to this “anonymous” data in a practice known as “de-anonymity”.
Your information is valuable
Most of the services you enjoy on the internet but do not make money directly by collecting and selling data. This data includes what you do on the Internet, tracked by third party cookies across multiple sites. Other types of data like location data can be collected and it does not stop there. All the finer details about how you interact with digital systems can be recorded and analyzed.
This data is “anonymous”, which simply means that the information that identifies you directly has been removed This is information like your name, IP address, physical address etc. All that’s left is everything else that can be used to create a detailed profile associated with an ad ID.
Re-identification becomes trivial
The problem with this anonymity process is that anonymous data can be re-identified by cross-reference with publicly available information or with information collected from multiple websites using the aforementioned tracking cookies.
A complete data brokerage industry has developed around creating these marketing profiles that can be sold to anyone willing to pay. Data brokers are nicely explained by John Oliver in an episode tonight of last week.
Imagine that you have a phone book that lists your name, address and phone number as well as your income, health problems, stage of life and much more. Re-identification is so simple that researchers estimate that “99.98% of Americans can be accurately re-identified on any dataset using 15 demographic features.”
De-anonymity and cryptocurrency
In addition to the general data collection that occurs on a daily basis, there is a special type of de-anonymity problem related to blockchain technology such as cryptocurrencies. A blockchain laser keeps a perfect record of all transactions that have taken place since the inception of the blockchain.
Cryptocurrency wallets are just a collection of 7 numbers without names And this has led to the belief that cryptocurrency is anonymous. The problem is that transactions in blockchain may be associated with third party data that does not reveal their names. This could be when you exchange cryptocurrency for dollars, when a product you bought with cryptocurrency is sent to your home, or any other instance where the activity or amount reflected in the blockchain matches something that is not anonymous.
This is why there are cryptocurrency mixers and tumblrs, which make random transactions and shuffle coins in the participating wallets, thus hiding the path. Some cryptocurrencies, such as Monero, have been designed from the beginning to address this issue.
However, even if you use hard anonymous currency today, in the future computer technology will be able to easily decrypt blockchain, which is indefinite. So what you did decades ago can be discovered in the future, and if it’s already on the blockchain, there’s nothing you can do about it!
What can you do?
The first and most effective thing you can do is change the type of software you use to search or browse the Internet. There are engines (such as DuckDuckGo) and browsers (such as Brave) that specifically block tracking cookies and other tracking methods to prevent data collection.
Apple has a policy that apps should be asked if they can track you. For a global solution, you can go to Privacy> Tracking on your iOS device and stop allowing apps to request tracking.
The only real downside for you as a user is that you will now see random ads that may not be relevant to you, but at a small price for privacy.
You can also choose when and how to block tracking. Limit it to things you don’t want people to know about you, but forgive more information that doesn’t apply to you. For example, depending on the sensitivity of the information, you can instruct iOS apps not to be tracked on a case-by-case basis. You can only use a privacy browser (on a virtual machine, via the Tor network and with a VPN) for sensitive browsing. Thus, your online life is divided into public and private spheres.
If you’re really concerned that your smartphone or other device is exposing your presence to sensitive areas, you can also use a Faraday bag, which will temporarily block all radio signals from your phone until you remove it.
For the information already gathered, this is a more subtle question. It all depends on where you live. In Europe, for example, the GDPR legal framework provides citizens with a remedy and a “right to information”.