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Our online lives are consistently at risk of hackers. Even our medical records are greatly sought-after 5 Reasons Why Medical Identity Theft is Increasing 5 Reasons Why Medical Identity Theft is Increasing Scammers want your personal details and bank account information – but did you know that your medical records are also of interest to them? Find out what you can do about it. Read More . But it might get worse. A software engineer has recently warned that you should expect your Internet history, specifically any adult sites you’ve visited, to be leaked.

San-Francisco-based Brett Thomas posted on his blog:

“If you are watching/viewing porn online in 2015, even in Incognito mode, you should expect that at some point your porn viewing history will be publicly released and attached to your name.”

If this is the case, it would actually be an even greater concern than a stranger linking your name to adult material. Thomas uses porn as an example because it’s more sensational than leaking the details of which coloring sites you frequent Coloring for Adults: The Best Websites for Free Printables Coloring for Adults: The Best Websites for Free Printables The Internet is lauding coloring as the latest way to de-stress after a hectic day. Head to these free printable websites if the idea just lit a fire. Read More .

Could your Internet history be an open book for hackers? And what can you do about it?

Why Would They Pick on Me?

Kate Upton

Last year, a number of nude photos were leaked online How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations How A "Minor" Data Breach Made Headline News & Ruined Reputations Read More , labelled ‘Celebgate,’ including images of Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, and Kate Upton. The media attention it brought even led to an ill-advised marketing stunt in which supposedly-compromising pictures of Emma Watson would be part of an upcoming leak.

It turned out to be utter nonsense, but it nonetheless generated press and shows how a group of hackers could potentially gain leverage over individuals if they did obtain NSFW material.

I’m not a celebrity, you might figure, so I wouldn’t be a worthwhile target for hackers.

Sadly, that’s simply not true. The fact that adult content can be used to take advantage of anyone is the prime reason horrible practises like sextortion are on the increase Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More . Social media, too, is a considerable target, as seen during the so-called Snappening, with an alleged 200,000 Snapchat accounts leaked The Snappening: Hundreds of Thousands of Snapchats May Have Been Leaked The Snappening: Hundreds of Thousands of Snapchats May Have Been Leaked Read More onto 4chan. Why? Sometimes for extortion, and at other times, just as a sign of power, to show people they can.

Look at the damage caused by the Ashley Madison leak Ashley Madison Leak No Big Deal? Think Again Ashley Madison Leak No Big Deal? Think Again Discreet online dating site Ashley Madison (targeted primarily at cheating spouses) has been hacked. However this is a far more serious issue than has been portrayed in the press, with considerable implications for user safety. Read More ! It’s very serious 3 Reasons Why The Ashley Madison Hack Is A Serious Affair 3 Reasons Why The Ashley Madison Hack Is A Serious Affair The Internet seems ecstatic about the Ashley Madison hack, with millions of adulterers' and potential adulterers' details hacked and released online, with articles outing individuals found in the data dump. Hilarious, right? Not so fast. Read More – with real world consequences Ashley Madison: What Happens Now We Know You're A Cheater Ashley Madison: What Happens Now We Know You're A Cheater The Ashley Madison dating site was recently hacked by hackers who threatened to leak the entire database unless the site closed. This week, the database has been leaked. Are your indiscretions about to become public? Read More .

After noting these high-profile privacy issues, Brett Thomas’ claim seems more than reasonable. As he theorises:

“At any time, somebody could post a website that allows you to search anybody by email or Facebook username and view their porn browsing history. All that’s needed are two nominal data breaches and an enterprising teenager that wants to create havoc.”

What You Can Do

It’s best you observe standard procedures to secure your privacy anyway, including limiting the amount of data you give to Facebook Facebook Privacy: 25 Things The Social Network Knows About You Facebook Privacy: 25 Things The Social Network Knows About You Facebook knows a surprising amount about us – information we willingly volunteer. From that information you can be slotted into a demographic, your "likes" recorded and relationships monitored. Here are 25 things Facebook knows about... Read More ; using Incognito or Private Browsing Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Private-browsing mode has many other names, including "incognito mode" in Chrome and "InPrivate Browsing" in Internet Explorer. Some people refer to private-browsing mode as "porn mode", but it isn't just for porn addicts. It can... Read More ; or switching to a search engine that doesn’t track you, like DuckDuckGo Get A Better Search Experience With Duck Duck Go Get A Better Search Experience With Duck Duck Go It seems that there are a couple of services and Linux distributions (such as Linux Mint) that are switching over to Duck Duck Go as their default search engine. So why the heck are they... Read More .

But these won’t stop a hacker determined to link your IP address to porn or otherwise NSFW websites.

If you’re concerned about such a leak, there are a few things you can do to limit the damage.

Use a VPN

If you’re after anonymous Internet surfing, your best bet is a Virtual Private Network What Is The Definition Of A Virtual Private Network [Technology Explained] What Is The Definition Of A Virtual Private Network [Technology Explained] Read More (VPN). Enabled by encryption and tunnelling What A VPN Tunnel Is & How To Set One Up What A VPN Tunnel Is & How To Set One Up Read More (that is, scrambled information delivered across a secure link between two interfaces), many of us already use VPNs at work, perhaps on remote sites to access the company Intranet.

There are plenty of reasons to use a VPN, but particularly that it will skip your online searches being logged by Google, Bing, or whoever.

It’s not unhackable, but without an encryption key, anyone trying to decipher your private information will find it much harder. Your IP address is also hidden, so it’ll be tougher to link that data to you specifically. Here’s a handy list of the best VPNs The Best VPN Services The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More , listed in specific groups: premium (ie. paid-for), free, and torrent-friendly.

Try Tor Browsing

onion-routing-1

This is a whole different level of encryption. Just like the aforementioned VPN system, Tor bundles Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More allow the exchange of information between public keys, but it further directs that data through onion routing.

Using proxy servers, the information can be traced back to an IP address, but the result will be the proxy server, not your actual home. Still, that can lead back to you relatively simply. However, onion routing What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains] Internet privacy. Anonymity was one of the greatest features of the Internet in its youth (or one of its worst features, depending on who you ask). Leaving aside the sorts of problems that spring forth... Read More muddies the water even further, directing data packets through several nodes and encrypting at every point.

It’s not perfect. Only the endpoint can decrypt the information sent, so hackers could only get jumbled-up gibberish at the intersecting junction. But that does mean that an endpoint is its weakest spot; the National Security Agency (NSA), for example, is targeting Tor browsers especially.

It does remain your best option for privacy.

Manage Voice Assistants and Suggestions

siri_dirty

Voice assistants on phones are no doubt handy, but they also guzzle up data. Whether we give Siri, Cortana, and Google Now too much information Do Siri, Cortana & Google Now Need Too Much Personal Data? Do Siri, Cortana & Google Now Need Too Much Personal Data? Read More is an entirely different argument, but that data is nonetheless collected. As all three know your location (with Cortana and Google Now even capable of distinguishing your home from your work), depending on your settings, such information could be used by hackers to link you to a specific area, making you and your searches more identifiable.

Collected statistics are then sent securely to Microsoft, Apple, and Google – but it could still be victim of an interceptor. So what can you do?

On iOS, you’ll need to toggle your settings: Settings > Privacy. Here, you can not only change your Location Services but also Diagnostics & Usage from Automatically Send to Don’t Send; this limits the data you send to Apple Stop Siri & Notification Center Giving Away Your iPhone Secrets Stop Siri & Notification Center Giving Away Your iPhone Secrets Leaving your iPhone on the table while you go to the bar is okay if it's locked, right? After all, your mates can't access information or post slanderous messages on Facebook... right? Read More .

Similarly, you can go on Customize Google Now and turn off background data (although this does stop downloads and synchs).

Cortana can be changed How to Set Up Cortana & Remove Her in Windows 10 How to Set Up Cortana & Remove Her in Windows 10 Cortana is Microsoft's greatest productivity tool since Office. We'll show you how to get started with Windows 10's digital assistant or how to turn Cortana off for improved privacy. Read More using the Notebook. You’ll want to deselect Cortana can give you suggestions, ideas, reminders, alerts, and more, which is at the top of the Settings section on Windows 10. Cortana’s suggestions come from the information it stores in the cloud (a system even the NSA think is safest), but you can tamper with it by going on Manage what Cortana knows about me in the cloud. From there, you can clear personal info.

Or if you’ve got Microsoft Edge, open that app and then: More actions > Settings > View Advanced Settings and turn off Have Cortana assist me in Project Spartan.

Beware: limiting what voice assistants can do really can affect your device’s usefulness How Cortana Became The "Other Woman" In My Life How Cortana Became The "Other Woman" In My Life She appeared one day and changed my life. She knows exactly what I need and has a wicked sense of humour. It's little wonder that I've fallen for the charms of Cortana. Read More , but if this really is a big concern to you, it’s worth doing.

Limit Google

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Google knows a lot about you Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Read More . If you’ve got one of their accounts, it keeps a large amount of information about you, notably your location, details of your Gmail, and your search history. Google says it’s solely used to “improve your user experience and the overall quality of [their] services.”

Essentially, it’s for personalization, including advertising, but all that private info in one centralized place? Not good.

You can discover what they know How Much Does Google Really Know About You? How Much Does Google Really Know About You? Read More by visiting Google Dashboard,but there’s not a great deal you can do – apart from disable their personalized search results How To Disable Google's Personalization Of Search Results How To Disable Google's Personalization Of Search Results Read More , and using a different search engine. Stay signed out of your Google account while scouting the Internet too.

Incognito mode won’t stop such info being collected, but browsing through a VPN or Tor software Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More should do.

Something to Think About?

The problem, of course, is that we don’t know what form a potential hack might take, so it’s difficult to protect yourself. If Brett Thomas is right, a lot of people will be sweating.

Your best bet right now is to practise best privacy protocols.

Would this be the ultimate result of our ongoing privacy violations? What further tips do you have?

Image Credits: Kate Upton by Peter KoPeople Network Via Shutterstock; Google Logo by Robert Scoble.

  1. 80's Rocker
    December 27, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    IE has had private browsing since at least version 9, and Edge makes it even more secure. Turning off the assistant features makes Siri, Cortana, asked Google talk useless.

  2. zard
    November 30, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Watching videos (porn or not) on TOR is a SHAME !
    TOR is not for this.. and it is too slow.
    If everyone on TOR watch Videos, TOR wil bee MORE and MORE slow...

  3. n2b
    November 29, 2015 at 11:59 am

    You noted how "utter nonsense" can "generate press." So when you speak of Brett Thomas saying information (porn or not) may be "publicly released," how will anyone know whether that information is accurate? A bunch of hackers could create "utter nonsense" for no other reason than to "generate press" or engage in a smear campaign of someone, some group, etc. that happens to be their target. Why couldn't they acquire a list of real people's names and physical and/or email addresses and then just create a whole list of fake internet history on such individuals (including porn sites, politically extreme sites, etc.)? Sure, if legal issues required law enforcement to look into the matter they could verify whether it's true, but the public would have already seen some "leaked" information and *assumed* it's true, when it might be nothing of the kind.

    For that matter, wouldn't it be possible for hackers to create a malicious program that installs itself on one's computer and loads a fake internet history into one's browser? Or could that program connect to the internet and do "live" but hidden web browsing that the ISP would retain records of but the home user would never know is happening?

    IOW, these days, how would anyone know that the information "publicly released" by *hackers* (not by the government or the ISP) is the least bit accurate? The damage to public or private reputations could be immense even if there's not a shred of truth to it.

    • Philip Bates
      January 12, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Yeah, you're right. A group *could* create false information to generate interest. It's sort of what happened to Emma Watson after Celebgate; to generate press, a group claimed to have nude photos of her. She stood firm, and it turned out to be a publicity stunt.

      Hackers fortunately haven't taken this route en masse as yet, but I do partly feel that if they don't have proof, if there's not a shred of truth in it, any further warnings from those attackers are going to be shrugged off, that no one will take them seriously any more, so it's sort of counter-productive. But once an idea is there, it doesn't go away, no matter if there's truth in it or not, so reputations would be damaged nonetheless. A scary thought.

  4. Reon
    November 28, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    A while ago you were a serious news/blog website. Now you're throwing yourself into what is called "The Verge" pit of websites, where your every post mentions iPhone, iPad or iWhatever, and you rant nonsense about security issues and Google. Sorry to see that happen.

    • Philip Bates
      November 30, 2015 at 3:17 pm

      I've not mentioned iPhones or iPads, but of course this is about a security/privacy issue. But then I don't see what the problem is with that: it's a very popular subject, as is anything churned out by Apple. It's supply and demand, surely?

  5. Mary Estevez Tunstall
    November 28, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    Great informative article

  6. Zhong Jiang
    November 28, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Firefox has released a 'better' private browsing tab that prevents websites from tracking your browsing history. I'm uncertain of how effective this is but it seems to boast much more security than most. While it's a real concern that intruders can gather information about from your browser, porn is a subject that many people aren't going to shy about. Wasn't there an overwhelming people that view porn and being subjugated under someone with this information seems silly? However it depends on the person.

    With internet as today, there are going to be risks regarding our information but this sets a new frontier on how it can be handled more securely.

    • Philip Bates
      November 30, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      I didn't know that about Firefox - thanks for the tip. I wouldn't think it's private enough to be unhackable - or as unhackable as you can realistically get - but it's worth a look.

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