What Do Our Web Browsers Really Know about Us? Pt 2/2
With the rapid pace of technological development, we’re becoming increasingly concerned for our privacy in all areas of life, particularly when browsing the web. In part one of this article, we took a look at the specific information and data stored by our web browsers.
In part two, we’re going to look at the privacy and security implications of having all of this data stored on our computers.
How Does This Affect You?
Much of our stored data seems pretty innocuous, with the obvious exception of web browsers with the ‘auto-complete’ function occasionally and accidentally storing credit card numbers and billing information. Clearly, financial information is at risk, though it’s rare for a browser to hold full credit card info. However, there are definitely occasions where we’re punching in the first digit of a credit card number during online checkout, only to have the full 16 digit number “helpfully” auto-completed by the browser.
While the ever-increasing threat of malware raises the specter of identify theft, it’s not just illegitimate or malicious misuse of this data that we need to be concerned about. The technology behind so-called ‘behavioral targeting’ used in modern Internet marketing and advertising can be pretty creepy when you think about all of the data collected as you browse the web. Through various web tracking methods, advertisers will build up a virtual profile of you based on your web usage and browsing habits, which is then traded and sold along with the profiles for millions of other users worldwide.
Anyone with physical access to your computer can glean all sorts of information about how you spend your time online. Have you ever visited a website that you shouldn’t have during work hours, such as FaceBook or YouTube? For a more problematic alternative, if you’ve ever filled out a resume or searched the web for job openings during your normal work shift, your boss probably wouldn’t be too happy!
It’s difficult to overstate the ingenuity of hackers, identity fraudsters, and other digital criminals. Once your private information makes its way out into the wider world, your problems are only just beginning. While it may seem like your information is a tiny needle in the vast haystack of the internet, software bots exist whose sole purpose is ‘scraping’ the Internet for useful and relevant data. Swarms of malware floating around are ready and eager to exploit this information in a variety of ways.
How Can We Protect Against Potential Threats?
There are some great products out there to help protect login and password information, such as RoboForm or 1Password. There are also a number of established and respected browser plug-ins, such as Ghostery and Adblock, to help inhibit the tracking methods used by online marketers, with the added benefit of limiting the number of those eerily accurate advertisements that seem to follow you around the web.
PrivacyScan has won numerous awards, and it is recognized industry-wide as the best way to digitally shred browser files containing your private information and eliminate possible privacy threats from your Mac. By clearing out temporary Internet files on a regular basis, you can ensure your computer remains less vulnerable to malicious attack and save valuable hard drive space by keeping it free of the junk that accumulates with daily browser usage.
The bottom line is really this: Individually, many of these files would not pose a significant privacy threat should they become compromised and utilized by a malicious or enterprising third party. With regards to privacy, it largely boils down to the subjective opinion of what information you consider to be private. On an individual, per-file basis, our browsers don’t know that much about us, but when it all adds up, everything fits together to paint a bigger picture.
Either way, temporary Internet files can take up a fairly large chunk of hard drive space over the long run, so it’s worth clearing your cache occasionally anyway. Most browsers offer comprehensive options if you want to keep any individual part of your cache such as history or passwords and logins.
Is there a genuine concern? Well, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If one thing is absolutely certain, it’s that the tenacity of people seeking leverage with even the tiniest bit of private data should never be underestimated, and this is unlikely change anytime soon.