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Just two weeks ago, three of the biggest names in Internet services were caught spying on user emails. Internet privacy has been the hot topic these past few months, and service privacy policies and practices have been under scrutiny. This latest discovery has more users looking to private VPN services to help them avoid service-initiated privacy breaches.
High-Tech Bridge Study Catches Snoopers in the Act
A recent study revealed that Internet giants Google, Facebook and Twitter have been going through their users’ email messages. The study aimed to test the level of privacy that fifty of the biggest online companies offer to their users. They were able to conclusively determine whether or not a company had opened private email messages sent between users by placing a unique web address link in the test emails sent. Six of the companies tested had opened the link from the private message.
Privacy advocates have been clamoring for attention louder than ever before since June this year. They have again strengthened their call for action against online snooping by Internet companies. High-Tech Bridge, the cyber-security company that conducted the test, used their systems to send a unique web address in private messages through the fifty services. Within the ten days that the experiment ran, six of the companies clicked on the link. The messages were sent to other users, and should have been under the protection of these companies’ privacy policies. High-Tech Bridge says that only the sender and the intended user should have been able to click on the link. The fact that they were clicked on by someone other than these two users brought High-Tech Bridge to the conclusion that the private messages were being opened by the service providers.
High-Tech Bridge’s experiment does not prove that email contents are being read by these Internet companies. But it proves that private messages are being opened by them. This is enough evidence to determine that at least these six companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, are intercepting and accessing user communications. The test showed that only six out of fifty companies were caught snooping. But High-Tech Bridge warns that this is not an accurate number. The test was performed to determine only whether or not service providers were snooping. They warn that other companies may be doing the same thing, and were simple not caught this time. Other companies have also been suspected of snooping on user communications lately. For instance, Germany accused Microsoft of snooping on Skype users. We need further experiments to find out who is snooping, but until then caution is advised when communicating through online services.
Why They are Snooping and How to Stop Them
Some security analysts point out that the biggest reason that Internet companies have for snooping on user communications is to gather personal details. User data is very valuable as an element in developing targeted marketing campaigns. User data helps them provide personalized ads that are more efficient in attracting sales.
Facebook did not respond to the High-Tech Bridge test results, but stated that it uses complex automated systems that help them to combat phishing scams and reduce the amount of malicious material that is being spread through their network. Twitter likewise has no comment, but said that it uses robotic systems as a defense against spam. Google was less forthcoming, claiming that this is old news and that there is no privacy issue. The point of privacy advocates is that companies should not be opening user communications. But from the perspective of the services, they are providing an extra service to their users by having security measures in place.
Regardless of the security benefits, most users are not comfortable knowing that their providers are accessing their private messages. Most of them have privacy tools like VPNs to help them stay safe from malicious software. And they already know that they are not to share sensitive information on open platforms. They worry about spam links and attacks from fake profiles, but they are not willing to give up their privacy in exchange for anti-spam solutions. Many are disappointed because they were not made aware that their communications were being monitored by their providers.
Private VPNs for Privacy Protection
A VPN service is not going to stop these companies from snooping on online communications. But a VPN can prevent your messages from being associated with you. The best practice is to use more private VoIP and email services and route all Internet activity through a VPN server. The VPN will encrypt the data you send, and will anonymize you online. This way, no one will know what the messages say or who sent them.
For businesses that prioritize profit over user privacy, the danger to users is grave. Many businesses make money off user data. The collect, store and analyze it, but are not concerned about securing it. The scores of user data that can be collected on Internet users allows them to create detailed profiles that help them sell products and services. A VPN can’t stop them from using your data, but it can prevent them from taking it in the first place. Data is useless to them unless they can connect it with you and other bits of data about you. If you are careful with the details of your identity that you share with these services, and use a VPN, your data cannot be aggregated in the way that makes it useful to them.