Online Privacy: Why We Need It and How to Get It

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The launch of Facebook's new Rooms app on October 23 marked a huge departure for the company. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been famously opposed to anonymous use of his social media platform, recently cracking down on users who chose not to use their real names "as listed on your credit card, driver's license, or student ID." (The policy was later relaxed after public outcry.) But Rooms, which allows users to create anonymous, invite-only chat rooms based on shared interests, does not ask for any personal information.

Industry insiders speculate that Facebook's about-face is due to increased competition from an ever-growing stable of private and anonymous apps. More and more, people don't want to be themselves on the Internet—at least not under their own names. Why?

"People often use visibility or transparency as a proxy for ethical behavior; however, there are legitimate reasons law-abiding citizens want to remain anonymous online," says Brenda Berkelaar, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. For example, she says, people might want to protect themselves from identity thieves or lessen the impact of gender, race, and other biases.

Along with Rooms, here's a rundown of some of the most widely used private and/or anonymous applications available on the Internet.

Anonymous Search Engines

If you've ever wondered why ads for a certain product trail you around the Internet for days after a search for that product, here's the reason: the most widely used search engines on the Internet don't just help you find that cookie recipe or research the most reliable car—they also store a lot of information about you. Your IP address, what you search for and when—anything is fair game in the ongoing attempt to tailor search results to your interests. A few companies are bucking the trend, however, launching search engines that store no personal information.

  • DuckDuckGo, founded in 2008, is an Internet search engine that emphasizes privacy by not profiling its users. In addition, rather than seeing search results tailored for a given user (based on previous browsing habits), all users searching for a given term will see the same results. Although DuckDuckGo maintains logs of search terms used, it does not store IP addresses, log user information, or collect any personal information. The search engine also filters out what it considers low-quality content from "content mills" and pages with a high percentage of advertising. Finally, users have the option to search anonymously using Tor network, which routes the traffic through encrypted relays.
  • Startpage. If you don't mind content tailored to you but don't want to lose control over your personal information, this is the search engine to use. Startpage adds a layer of anonymity between you and Google—you submit your search term to Startpage, which submits it to Google and returns the results to you (after discarding all your personally identifiable information). Startpage also discards your IP address, and unlike DuckDuckGo, it doesn't keep a record of the searches performed.
  • Blekko does log users' PII, but unlike the best-known search engines, it deletes it after 48 hours. You can disable the collecting of information entirely by using Blekko's "SuperPrivacy" setting. Blekko also lets you disable ads.

"People often use visibility or transparency as a proxy for ethical behavior; however, there are legitimate reasons law-abiding citizens want to remain anonymous online."

Brenda Berkelaar, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Anonymous chat apps let you talk to friends and say what's on your mind without them being able to specifically identify who you are. These are the apps that Facebook's Rooms is trying to beat. The most popular app, called Secret, has been downloaded by almost 400,000 people.

  • Secret uses your mobile phone contacts to establish a network of friends. You're not given an identity or even a static username up front, and you can share anything you want—your innermost thoughts, your secret fears, even infidelity or other wrongdoing. Your friends know the secret came from someone in their network, but they don't know from whom. Your friends on Secret can like and share your post, thus spreading the secret throughout the network while keeping it anonymous. Although the Secret team does need to know who posted what, the company claims they keep the link between a secret and its user account information on a "need-to-know" basis.
  • Cloaq may be the most anonymous app of all. You don't share any personal information at all to sign up—not even an email or a username—and you're given a random handle under which to post.. Even a hack into Cloaq's servers won't reveal your secrets. There's also no word or character limit, so be as gossipy as you like.
  • Niche market anonymous chat apps. Some apps focus on only one market segment. For example,Insider caters to sports fans; Erodr to college students; and Steams is for those who just need to get that complaint off their chest.

Anonymous Photo Sharing Apps

Instagram may be the best-known photo-sharing app on the Internet, but similar apps that offer more anonymity are gaining ground. On Instagram, as on Facebook, you have a network of followers, and you can set your photos to private. On many of the new apps, you can post photos with or without accompanying text and share them without revealing any information.

  • Whisper, launched in November 2012, now boasts millions of users. It's a cross between Instagram and the website PostSecret, which allows users to post anonymous secrets on images of postcards. With Whisper, you choose a photo either from the app or from your phone, add text to it, and post it. Your name isn't attached and the photo can be seen and liked by anyone; other users can also message you privately. However, Whisper does save your IP address and keep a log of your posts.
  • Sneeky and Ether are similar to the sharing app Snapchat, which allows users to send photos and videos; anything sent by Snapchat disappears on a timeline you set between one and 10 seconds. Sneeky's difference is that it allows you to send photos with overlaid text to your mobile contacts, but without your name attached; Ether allows you to send photo and video anonymously only to your friends.
  • Gossup combines elements of other well-known apps like Instagram, Foursquare, and Reddit. Users can post anonymous photos and follow the posts of others by location (for example, you can check if anyone else is "Gossup-ing" about the party you're at). And as at Reddit, you can earn social capital, here called "sway," by posting messages that get a lot of upvotes.

Anonymous Browser

The Onion Router, or Tor, was released in 2002 and allows anonymous Internet browsing. The software directs all traffic through multiple layers of encryption (hence the onion metaphor), which conceals the user's location and makes it much more difficult for their Internet activity to be traced. Users can surf the Internet, chat, and send instant messages, all anonymously; this level of privacy means that Tor is often used for illicit pursuits as well as legal activities. But does the average web user need the high level of security Tor provides? "Typical web users can find such tools helpful in managing competing needs for convenience, security, and connection online," Berkelaar says. "However, such tools should be used in combination with informed personal practices/behaviors, such as not sharing certain types of information."

Should You Go Private?

With the number of anonymous apps and Internet options growing every day, it's conceivable that you could conduct almost all your online activity in almost complete privacy. But should you? And is the privacy of these tools as secure as it seems? Brenda Berkelaar isn't sure.

"It's difficult to eliminate your digital trail, and what mobile devices do is offer a link between our digital and physical behaviors," she says. "We need to become more sophisticated and literate about the technologies we use—and the personally identifying information created, aggregated, and made visible by those technologies. Instead of being consumers of technologies, we need to understand how those technologies work and how human behavior impacts technology uses and protection of personal information."

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