Protecting privacy online - someusers 'naive' say German officials

21st October 2004, Comments 0 comments

22 October 2004 , BONN - Think you're travelling incognito on the internet? Not quite. When you log on to a website, your browser transmits information to that website. That information includes which operating system you're using, as well as the time and date that you last visited the site. Furthermore, Internet service providers like AOL store the addresses of all sites you've visited. Every user's tracks through the internet can be precisely reconstructed back to their assigned Internet protocol (IP) ad

22 October 2004

BONN - Think you're travelling incognito on the internet? Not quite. When you log on to a website, your browser transmits information to that website. That information includes which operating system you're using, as well as the time and date that you last visited the site.

Furthermore, Internet service providers like AOL store the addresses of all sites you've visited. Every user's tracks through the internet can be precisely reconstructed back to their assigned Internet protocol (IP) address.

Other firms make a living by sneaking cookies and spy programs onto browsers that provide details on a surfer's path. Many firms collect addresses and telephone numbers from those who order products online or who take part in prize drawings. Many internet users are not at all aware just how much personal data is revealed while surfing.

"Many internet users are somewhat naive in matters related to their data," says Peter Buettgen, of the German Federal Data Privacy Office in Bonn, Germany.

The internet is a particular problem for data privacy because information about internet users can be collected, used, and passed on by any site. Particularly for data that is related to health and finance, consumers need to pay more attention.

"It would be desirable if internet service providers would offer the choice of anonymous surfing," Buettgen feels.

While this is not a standard practice, there are programs and offerings that help surfers use the internet without giving out more data than necessary.

For starters, a variety of websites instantly provide a user with the information that he or she is sending out while surfing.

Anyone looking to move unseen past data collectors requires an Internet server that processes and anonymizes data. An anonymous proxy server serves as this kind of middleman, providing visited Web sites with only the proxy server's information, not the identity of the user.

In order to be fully effective, the proxy must not store any connection data. This would prevent firms, as well as the police, from seeing any information about internet users.

This doesn't mean, however, that the police are completely left in the dark. If they obtain a warrant, such as for felony investigations, the authorities can bug telephone and data connections.

Proxy servers are indispensable for anonymous surfing, but they also represented the weakest link in the chain.

Just what a proxy server does with a surfer's data is ultimately a matter of trust. In order to resolve this problem, a program called "Jap" was developed four years ago at the Technical University of Dresden: The project builds together several servers to make a mix cascade.

No attributable data can be retrieved from the individual proxy servers that form the cascade.

The proxy operators have committed themselves to exchanging no information with one another. The free Jap software even encrypts the surf information there on the user's computer. It is available at www.anon-online.de for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.

"Users have no overview of which firms hold to privacy strictures and which don't," says Professor Hannes Federrath, director of the Jap project.

He feels that every user deserves a certain modicum of privacy, not unlike the envelope around a letter or the door to a bathroom. "Our future lives will take place more and more on the Net," Federrath says.

Those who have no interest in installing software or who just want to try out anonymous surfing can test out the ad-financed anonymising service at http://anonymouse.ws. A quick test shows that a browser surfing through the site truly provides noticeably less data.

DPA

Subject: German news 

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