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There's privacy and privacy. Are you being tracked? Probably. Is it something to worry about? Probably not.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.net.

I'm a regular listener to the excellent and highly recommended podcast Security Now with Steve Gibson and Leo Laporte. In a recent episode (#121) entitled "Is Privacy Dead?" they touch on an issue that I get questions about all the time. They touch on important topics, and I do recommend listening to that podcast or reading the transcript.

But I also want to add my own two cents.

My initial reaction is to ask: what kind of privacy are you talking about?

The vast majority of my readers are clearly concerned about personal, individual privacy. In other words they're concerned that their spouse, their boss, their ex-girl or boyfriend, someone else, or in some cases even the government is tracking them specifically.

Possible? I suppose so. But in general it's extremely difficult without physical access to your machine or your home network. Yes, your boss can monitor your traffic and your boyfriend might have installed spyware. But someone across town or elsewhere? Not at all easy.

And the part that most folks fail to grasp? You're not that interesting. Seriously, unless you're doing something you shouldn't be (and even that probably needs to be fairly serious), or perhaps unless you're in a broken relationship, there's probably no one out there who's interested in taking the time and effort to track you.

And yet we are all tracked in one form or another.

And this is where people often get wrapped around the axle thinking that they're being spied on.

Tracking cookies.

Yes, at their worst, cookies can be used in ways such that the data would show, for example, that Leo Notenboom visited this site and that site and that site, and then purchased a size 12 widget from widgets-are-us.

But Leo Notenboom as an individual is just not that interesting. And chances are neither are you.

The much more common use of this type of tracking data is to track what's called "aggregate" data. My data combined with your data combined with thousands of other's data in such a way that trends become visible and can be used to target offers, future content, or who knows what.

All without once identifying who those specific people are.

Is that a loss of privacy? Probably.

Is it easy to opt out of? No, not really, not if you want to continue to be on-line in any convenient way.

Is it scary that the data might be misused? Of course.

Is it likely that it'll be misused against us individually?

No. Most of us just aren't that interesting and frankly, just not worth the effort.

Visit askleo.net and enter 12128 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.net.

Article C3251 - December 29, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
George Arauz
January 1, 2008 5:21 PM

Definitely a thing of the past. With all the new little add ons out there its possible to see even who you are emailing lately.

M. Chapman-Quinones
May 29, 2009 6:10 AM

Seens like we have already reached Mr. Orwell's "1984". Best Advice I Can Give: Don't put anything out on the Internet that you wouldn't advertise on the front page of your local newspaper. I haven't always done this; and it worries me that some rat will use the information I posted in 2003; but I can't help it. I use more discernment about what I put out there now and so should everybody else.

Old Man
February 4, 2013 11:14 AM

Leo's right. The average bloke just isn't worth the effort.

I may be the most important person in my life and mean something to my family; however, that is a very small circle. My real importance is evidenced by companies not even bothering to acknowledge my communications.

Also, how many of Leo's readers know what my name is, or where I live, or how old I am? Do any of you care? I doubt it very much. If those who have even a passing association with me aren't interested enough about me, why would some complete stranger? Those who track people and dig for data have too many people in higher public places to keep them busy.

With around 4 billion people in the world, why should I think someone would spend a lot of time trying to find out something about me?

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