Is Privacy Possible in the Online World?

Our online activity is tracked and tabulated, often without our knowledge. But there are ways to keep our web lives safe and secure.

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Do you ever look something up online – maybe movie show times or a book on Amazon – and then find an ad for that exact item on your Facebook that evening?

The internet provides access to an unprecedented amount of information and breaks down communication barriers, but it also creates a privacy problem. Even if your identity is protected and private, what you do may not be.

It’s not just “marketing things in a really creepy way directly to [you], but all this information is stored somewhere else, it’s out of your control, and you have no idea what it is or will be used for,” says Ian Goldberg, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo.

“[It] makes for an attractive target to cyber criminals.”

In his lab, Goldberg creates privacy-enhancing technologies to keep people secure and safe, particularly when they go online.

“Since 2013 when the Edward Snowden story hit the popular press, we’ve seen a large uptick in the awareness of privacy-enhancing technologies and the demand for it.”

One of the group’s biggest successes is Off the Record Messaging, a protocol to keep internet and mobile communications secure. This protocol is used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

But Goldberg also works on the other side of the information spectrum: censorship.

Last year, the news broke that China’s top messaging app, WeChat, was censoring messages without users’ knowledge. Goldberg’s group creates tools and systems that allow people access the free and open internet, even in censored countries.

As technology continues to develop, our ability to navigate between freedom of information and privacy must develop as well.

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Ian Goldberg is a Professor and University Research Chair in the Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, where he is a founding member of the Cryptography, Security, and Privacy (CrySP) research group.  He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he discovered serious weaknesses in a number of widely deployed security systems, including those used by cellular phones and wireless networks.  He also studied systems for protecting the personal privacy of Internet users, which led to his role as Chief Scientist at Zero-Knowledge Systems.  His research currently focuses on developing usable and useful technologies to help Internet users maintain their security and privacy, such as the widely used Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR) software.  He is a Senior Member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a winner of the Early Researcher Award, the Outstanding Young Computer Science Researcher Award, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award.