Naughton’s ten tips

Back in July I commented on one of John Naughton’s “networker” columns in the Observer. Last Sunday, Naughton wrote another nice article titled “10 ways to keep your personal data safe from online snoopers”.

Naughton begins the article by recalling that Tim Berners-Lee called the technology he devised a “web” of interrelated documents. He notes that:

“To its inventor, the noun must have seemed perfectly apposite: it described the intricate, organic linking of sites and pages that he had in mind. But “web” has other, metaphorical, connotations. Webs are things that spiders weave with the aim of capturing prey. And if you want a metaphor for thinking about where we are now with networked technology, here’s one to ponder.

Imagine a gigantic, global web in which are trapped upwards of two billion flies. Most of those unfortunate creatures don’t know – yet – that they are trapped. After all, they wandered cheerfully, willingly, into the web. Some of them even imagine that they could escape if they wanted to.

We are those insects.”

He continues:

“What’s astonishing is how unconcerned many people appear to be about this. Is it because they are unaware of the extent and comprehensiveness of the surveillance? Or is it some weird manifestation of Stockholm syndrome – that strange condition in which prisoners exhibit positive feelings towards their captors?”

I’m no longer astonished. But I am increasingly depressed at the lack of concern for personal privacy that most people seem to exhibit. Unfortunately, given the way the ‘net works, once that privacy has been breached, there is no way back. I like to think I have been fairly careful over the last several years in protecting that part of me which I feel needs to remain private. The most public manifestation of me is this blog, but trivia contains only that information which I choose to divulge. I control it, but even so, in aggregate there is probably more information available from trivia than I would initially have wished to reveal. But hey, you cannot expect to be a vanity publisher and /not/ reveal personal information.

As I have previously noted, sometimes I care about the footprint I leave on the web, sometimes I don’t, but the point is that I should be in control of that footprint. I am not sure that is entirely possible any more but I’m going to continue trying. As part of controlling my footprint I routinely lie when asked to provide personal identifiers on any website which requires me to have an “account”. If I can find an alternative source of the information I am seeking on a website which does not have such a ridiculous policy I will do so, but unfortunately sometimes this is not always possible. So as I said, I lie. My own privacy policy here encourages trivia’s visitors to do the same.

In my attempts to limit my exposure elsewhere I have recently been checking old sites I have used with the intention of deleting any and all accounts I no longer want or need. I have found this trickier than it should be, even though I keep fairly good records. Most of the sites I still appear to have unnecessary accounts on are specialist fora which I have used when researching a problem (like my old difficulty of getting sony memory sticks working on my AAO netbook – which I never did solve). Only one or two are the sort of mainstream site which really need concern me – like google for example which it is completely impossible to avoid if you use any android device. In google’s case I have an account which only exists on the mobile devices, divulges the absolute bare minimum I can get away with and never uses email – but I still don’t like even that. Some sites I simply have to give personal information to if I want them to accept a credit card and deliver goods to me – though of course I no longer have an amazon account. I was thus pleased to see the arrival of a new site called which aims to assist people like me who wish to clean up old accounts, but are having difficulty finding out how to do so. Amazon is a good example of a company which makes this unnecessarily difficult. (Intriguingly, it would appear that it is impossible to delete an account from /any/ gawker media site – you have been warned.)

But back to Naughton. He asks:

“What can you do if you’re someone who feels uneasy about being caught in this web? The honest answer is that there’s no comprehensive solution: if you are going to use telephones (mobile or landline) and the internet then you are going to leave a trail. But there are things you can do to make your communications less insecure and your trail harder to follow.”

He then lists “10 ideas you might consider”. Those ideas are fairly sensible tips, but it reads an awful lot like whistling in the wind. Anyone with any clue about protecting personal privacy and the need to do so would already be doing all of what he discusses – and more. The people who really need the advice, won’t follow it. Delete a facebook account? My daughter would not countenance that, it is her primary way of sharing information. Avoid google? My daughter thinks google /is/ the web – her default when looking for even an obvious website (e.g. tesco) is to plug “tesco” into a google search on the grounds that that is quick and simple. Avoid free email? Fortunately in my daughter’s case I gave her an email account on my mail server, but I’m pretty sure she also has a gmail account – she has an android mobile. Use PGP encryption? Get real.

My daughter is not stupid, she simply would not see the need to do any of what Naughton recommends. And nor, I’ll bet will many others.

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