Privacy and Security on the Internet

This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class.  For more about this assignment, click here.

Published by Feross Aboukhadijeh.

For my research project I will be examining privacy and security on the Internet.

The Internet, and social networks in particular, are causing unprecedented change in our society. Never before in history have people shared so much personal information with the world so willing and so frequently. It has never been easier to stay connected with the people who matter in our lives, even if they are thousands of miles away. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of ways to stay in touch — Facebook (wall posts, private messages, chat, comments), Twitter (public @replies, direct messages), Myspace, Instant Messaging (AIM, Yahoo, MSN, iChat, Skype), blogging (blog posts, blog comments), text messages (SMS, MMS), not to mention the classic — email, telephone, voicemail.

But, with all of this new electronic communication comes a definite loss of individual privacy. There are numerous privacy risks that can affect Internet users – from the relatively benign gathering of statistics to the malicious mining of user data, it’s clear that data gathering is here to stay. Nearly all websites on the Internet use some form of visitor tracking software to learn more about their visitors. In many cases, the mere existence of this user data in such a large quantity is itself a danger to user privacy, no matter how well-protected or trustworthy the company.

AOL Logo

Copyright © TimeWarner, AOL Inc.

One particularly interesting example of a user privacy violation was the 2006 AOL Search Data Scandal during which AOL released the search data for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period onto the Internet. The data was intended the data to be used for research purposes. However, the data contained user’s unfiltered searches for twenty million search keywords – including searches on full names, phone numbers, social security numbers, and other personal information.

The New York Times even used this data to actually locate an AOL user in real life. By cross-referencing the user’s searches with phonebook listings, the Times easily identified the searcher as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Georgia. Arnold had searched for such terms as “numb fingers”, “60 single men”, and “dog that urinates on everything.”

This example illustrates the harm that even well-intentioned researchers can make, even while trying to help the academic community.

I intend to investigate the extent to which the Internet, including social networking and social media, has affected online privacy. By comparing user perceptions about online privacy with factual evidence about actual privacy practices online, I hope to identify the extent to which there is a disconnect between the two, what sorts of privacy violations are going on, and what is motivating these new trends.

Image sources:
I believe in good faith that my usage of the above copyrighted images, which are low-resolution, and illustrate the subject of my article, and are used for a scholastic pursuit, qualifies as fair use in the United States.

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Privacy and Security on the Internet

  1. Yiam says:

    It’s the same example that you give us during your presentation. However, I really like the end about fair use, in the image resource section.

  2. Jeremy says:


    I think you present an interesting and fascinating platform for researching your topic. From my personal experience, many of the trends you identify on the web exist, and are only getting magnified with the presence of large social networking sites like Facebook.

    I’m sure you’ve seen it already, but I would check out Facebook’s new Open Graph API, because I think it provides an interesting example of what you are talking about–i.e. users information becoming public in a very easy way to developers.

    I’m excited to see where the project goes, and I think you already have some very compelling samples. As Yiam said, I think the AOL example really demonstrates that sites have more information about us than we think.

    Good work.

  3. David says:

    Hey Feross,

    You did a great job here of presenting your topic in blog format. Bolding and italicizing important points was an awesome. The fair use comment at the bottom was also a nice touch.

    In terms of your research, you might want to talk about the benefits of losing privacy, namely that search engines like Google give better, more tailored results if they keep a search history on you. I think this idea is one of the motivations behind the current privacy trend.

    Good luck!

  4. christinealfano says:

    I really liked the way that you incorporated a poll into this post. It would be great to get our entire class to take it so that you could have a slightly larger sample for your results. Is primary research like this something you’re intending to fold into your project? Or was the poll just a really innovative way to get your readers to think critically about the issues that you were discussing?

  5. feross says:


    I’m definitely considering primary research like this. It’s been my experience that user’s don’t understand how much information is out there about them.

    However, I’m also planning to do another type of primary research — I want to make a webpage that gathers a ton of user data and tries to identify the user. I’m super excited about this part! 🙂

  6. Kelly says:

    I think that this topic is very relevant. You have already established exigence in that so many people are affected by the exploitation of privacy on the internet. The information that I include in my Facebook profile (movies I like, hobbies, religion etc.) always come up in the side bar advertisements, and it’s concerning that they are using my personal information to advertise towards me. I think that you coming from the angle of the “disconnect between the two” will be a very compelling argument. My advice would be to keep rolling with this poll. Try and get others to take it so that it will be a good tool to use in your paper. It would be interesting to know whether people don’t know that their privacy is being violated or if they just don’t mind enough to do anything about it. Keep up the good work!

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