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The 5 biggest online privacy threats of 2013

Your Web-based life is under scrutiny, as businesses, law officials, and privacy advocates battle over how to protect your online data.

By Melissa Riofrio, PC World
April 08, 2013 09:35 AM ET

PC World - Your online life may not seem worth tracking as you browse websites, store content in the cloud, and post updates to social networking sites. But the data you generate is a rich trove of information that says more about you than you realize--and it's a tempting treasure for marketers and law enforcement officials alike.

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Battles have long raged over how third parties can access and use your data. This year, your online privacy faces new threats, as a result of emerging technologies and new regulatory efforts that could affect how your Web-based life is protected... or exposed.

The nature of online activity compounds the privacy problems we already experience in the material world. Every move we make on our PCs, smartphones, and tabletsA turns into a data point that trackers can easily collect and share. And you effectively agree to such collecting and sharing whenever you sign up for an online service and accept its privacy policy.

"There's a pretty big disparity between what folks think their privacy rights are online and what they actually are online," says legislative counsel Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They mistake a privacy policy for meaning that they have privacy. That policy is frequently a way to describe the rights you don't have.""

Federal law may or may not mitigate the privacy threats. Efforts to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) aim to make your online data harder to collect and share. Meanwhile, proposed legislation called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) could make it easier to obtain.

As you watch your privacy being kicked around like a football in a scrum, pay close attention to the following five major threats.

#1: Cookie proliferation

The invisible cookie software agents that track your browsing habits and personal data are likely to multiply in 2013. Advertising networks, marketers, and other data profiteers depend on cookies to learn more about who you are--and what you may be interested in buying. Unless legislation imposes legal restraints on Web-browser tracking, your system is likely to accumulate more cookies than you'd find in a box of Chips Ahoy.

Cookies have been proliferating at a rate that would impress epidemiologists. "Five to ten years ago, if you opened NYT.com in your browser, you'd get a cookie from the New York Times, maybe a couple, and that would basically be it," says staff technologist Dan Auerbach of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Today you get probably on the order of 50 cookies from all sorts of third parties: ad servers, data brokers, trackers. They can build up this big profile about your browsing history."

The worst part, says EFF's Auerbach: "It's totally invisible to users. They have no idea what's happening."

Marketers say that they keep user data private by viewing it only in aggregate, but the sheer volume of data a cookie can collect about any one person can enable the cookie's owner to infer a surprising amount about the individuals being tracked. As a 2010 report by Gartner found, "the more that personal information can be correlated, the less it is possible to completely anonymize."

Originally published on www.pcworld.com. Click here to read the original story.

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