Can you stay anonymous in the digital world?

We have always tried hard to protect our privacy in both the real world and virtual world while there are others or companies or government want to pry into or take advantage of our private data for whatever purposes. In today’s digital world, while we enjoy the great pleasure and convenience brought by those electronic devices, we are also sacrificing part of our privacy (or whole) which is harder than ever to save.

In the virtual world everything is messed up and people can expose their private information easily. In order to start your cyber life, an IP address is essential. You can either have a static IP address or a dynamic one which changes every time you restart your router. However IP address also expose your location. A physical address is linked to an IP address and you can find it by using this IP online query tool. In the meantime, your can find the ISP as well who knows the real address of the user. When you access a website, it could request your location which could use your IP address to track your (or WiFi access point MAC address) location. Of course you can always disapprove that.

Well you can always use a proxy to hide your real IP address. But a website can still figure out your real IP address until you use a highly anonymous proxy or more than 2 proxies. VPN is a better choice which can totally hide your real IP.

Although an IP address can change, a device’s (PC or mobile device) MAC address is unique and permanent. So usually a MAC address can be used to identify a device. But it’s still a question if any website can obtain a PC’s MAC address without installing any program. But again you can change your MAC address without much trouble for security reasons.

In addition to IP and MAC address which you can fake, there are some more characteristics about your PC and browser, and many people would not notice its existence. These little bits of information are called fingerprint and can be used to identify what kind of person you are if your fingerprint is unique enough. To find out your browser and system fingerprints, check this out, hit test me and it will compile a list for your in no time.

In my test I can see that I am running this test using Firefox, I have American English, French, Germany, Italian and Spanish language enabled. Generally most people only have one language enabled which can be used to identify where he / she resides. Actually you can find more information here, and you will get a clearer picture if you have enough samples data. But again, corporations like Google and EBay etc can make the most out of these data. Some even think PayPal use these data to link one account to another and close them. Of course, people can change their browser fingerprints by reinstalling just everything from the OS to the browser and plugins.

When you access a website, the fingerprint can be easily obtained. However that’s not all. The website, if it wish can still use cookies to collect your preference data such as what you viewed or may be interested for marketing purposes. Again you can say no to those kinds of cookies by sending a do not track message which is to be supported by more web browsers. However you could not avoid all cookies because otherwise you may not have anything to do in the cyber world.

Our online fingerprint includes more, actually. People usually have many accounts, information of which is publicly available. For example, you need Email address and account to post on forums and social networking website, your search on Google and Bing etc, these data all point to your interests, intentions and needs which are valuable. These data (include text, photos, videos) tells a long story about a person.

But what about the real world? Well it’s less optimistic too. As Smartphone gets popularized, people carry their mobile device every time everywhere, which form the mobile location fingerprint. According to a new research by MIT, anonymous location data reveals who you are. The theory is that, people all live in a predictable movement pattern, we visit certain places repeatedly, such as home, school, church, home etc. These activities will form an unique fingerprint to figure out who a person is.

These location data can be obtained by either GPS or cell towers or WiFi access points. Your carrier, the OS maker (and its advertisers) could get them, the app maker whose app you install can get them, and the one who gets / tricks you into install an app can get them too.

It’s easier than ever to track an person, especially when he / she uses modern technology. If you are one of them, you should know that privacy is not easy saved.

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