The New Yorker issue of July 5, 1993, carried a now-famous cartoon by Peter Steiner. The cartoon and its caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” became famous enough to warrant its own Wikipedia Page.
In the early days of the Internet it was true: conversations (online chat, Usenets) took place on a level playing field. Not only did nobody know if you’re a dog, they had no idea of your age, race, location, religion, political bent, income, marital status or any other identifiers. It was conversation without discrimination. No judgment calls based on body type, weight, or affiliations of any sort.
In the early days the Internet was primarily a transport system for text, the written word. Pictures could be attached to emails or stored on sites, but were far less prevalent. Back then it was Compuserve and Prodigy with discussion groups, forums, and email communications. Nobody knew you were a dog on the mostly text web. Along came AOL,the rise of the World Wide Web, of browsers, and with them the emergence of the Graphic User Interface (GUI), and then pictures, images and graphics entered the scene.
With the advent of GUIs it became a norm for avatars and thumbnails to accompany user names. But few enforceable rules govern what images to show. Dating sites are often populated with “me at my best” (and often many years ago!) photos. Many Twitter and Facebook avatars are images, not head shots.
So now nobody knows if you’re an Akita (highly prized Japanese dog), a Shih Tzu (Chinese or Tibetan dog) or a mutt (a pooch from the pound).
Or even if you’re really a dog.
That level playing field, where nobody knows you’re a dog (or your gender, location, skin color, etc.) changed when canny operators realized the two-way nature of the internet enabled gathering of machine data and storage of clicks, keystrokes, and all manner of user data.
Now everything youput online is stored, saved, analyzed and categorized.Data collectors and advertisers know what kind of dog you have.They know your buying habits and thanks to mobile technology, when and where you go.Your passwords and Social Security number: if you’ve entered them, there’s a high degree of probability that data has been captured.
Data breaches have become common, news breaks about them all the time. An infographic at the Information is Beautiful website chronicles the World’s Biggest Data Breaches.
Personal Data at risk includes your birthdate, address, phone numbers,banking info,the IP addresses from which you’ve accessed the net, ads you’ve clicked on and your search history. Passwords, health data, credit card data (even that 3-digit number on the back, the one that’s supposed to be a secret!) are compromised.
Some programs go so far as to install programs to track your every move when you’re not online. Who does such a thing? Facebook, for one. It installs trackers to capture and report all of your offline moves and what other sites you visit. Every move even when you’re not logged on to Facebook. Countless apps for iPhone/iPad and Android do this on your mobile devices.
Is this legal, you might ask? Are they allowed to do this? In most cases the answer is yes .When you checked the yes box in that “I have read the terms and conditions and agree to this” question, you gave over all sorts of permissions.
Security firm ParetoLogic offers a glossary of Spyware Characteristics on its website. The Wall Street Journal ran ”What They Know,” a series investigating digital surveillance.
But don’t despair, there’s hope and there’s help. Ad blocking software is available, as are numerous Do Not Track programs. Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer offer Do Not Track options. Programs such as Disconnect, AdBlock Plus, Ghostery, Mozilla’s Lightbeam for Firefox, WebPal, EFF’sPrivacy Badger and NoScript offer protective services.
The savvy Internet user protects their Personal Data via user side Digital Strategy. There are secure password managers. LastPass and Dashlane are two reliable and safe password products. Online credit card management programs are emerging. They generate a per-event single-use credit card number that links to, but masks, your real credit card number. Bank of America offers this as ShopSafe, free toits customers.
Changing passwords every six months is advised. Do it when Spring and Fall time changes occur, like changing smoke alarm batteries. Run an anti-virus program. There are numerous firewall safety and virus or malware protection and detection offerings. Malware Bytes and Emsisoft provide strong tools to maintain safety.
Nobody on the Internet nobody knows if you’re a dog or just displaying a canine avatar, so it still makes sense to use flea collar-like tools. Groom your devices regularly. And just as dogs have to be up to date on their shots, make sure your Personal Data and online security protections are up to date.
Don’t just howl or bark at the moon. Be your own Internet watchdog.