On the web, free things are plenty. From web services to software that are available to download with no charge. Almost every single bit you see on the web comes from companies, corporations, to businesses and individuals seeking for income. If things are free, where do these commercial minded people get their money?
The answer is: your data.
Privacy concerns have been articulated from the beginnings of large scale computer sharing. As the internet grows larger with more contents and users, privacy is one of the most debated topic on the web.
Your Data Makes The Web
It's obvious for free services/products to not require any payment from their consumers. But with commercial beings behind their backs, there is no such thing as "free" things without something in return. No business entities in the world could ever survive solely by giving away free things. There has to be some sort of income, or they'll just dry up and go bankrupt.
For open-source projects, money comes from funds and investors. As open-source projects are things created by a community for the community, open-source projects don't usually require any purchase if mentioned its its user policy and licensing. But to close-source projects, as well as many software and services that are given away free of charge, being free means that their users are actually the product to be sold. To online companies, users are just there to be harvested.
Free things on the web comes from developers to tech giants. To monetize the "free" product", they need to harvest as much as user data as possible based on their policy that is accepted by the user prior of installation/usage, to make use of it to third-parties. From advertisers to those that need the data, developers and companies are selling the information for money.
With that fact, there is no such thing as a totally "free" service/product on the web.
The data they collect can be the form of data and usage telemetry and a whole lot more. For example, some software such as antivirus and firewall should have a bit more control of a system in order to work well. The data they are able to collect, could range from the numerous software and hardware installed to browsing habits. For search engines, social media and most other free services that collect user profiles, user data takes the form of user name, email address, age, gender, habits, cookies, IP address, to more sensitive aspects such as political and religious views, race, health conditions, substance use, intelligence, and personality and a lot more.
With that information they have, they are able to link users' activities to personal identifiable information of the internet users. Unless they use anonymous data collecting and for example, obey the DNT (Do Not Track) setting on browsers that limit their data collecting efforts.
Another concern comes from ISP (Internet Service Provider) in which a user should connect before doing getting online. Internet users get internet access through them and all data transmitted to and from users must pass through the ISP. This makes ISP has the potential to observe users' activities on the internet. Due to ISP prohibited to participate in tracking activities die to legal, ethical, business and technical reasons, they have at least your information for billing purposes.
Ideally, they collect only as much information as they require in order to provide internet connectivity.
However, information collected by ISP do pose privacy issues. For example, ISP should make their information available to government's requests. In some countries, such requests even don't necessarily require a warrant.
Seeing Privacy A Bit Deeper
Most people on the web are habitual and casual users. These people don't usually concern about internet privacy, and rarely need total anonymity. Some other people, especially larger companies and the government, are more concerned about privacy and anything they share on the web. These people desire much stronger privacy and more control on things others can get their hands on.
Internet users should be careful on what they post, share and submit on the web because any of them can be harmful or in danger of malicious attacks. Some information are permanent on the web while some others are archived., depending on the Terms of Service (TOS), and privacy policies of the particular service/product the user is using. This can include many things from comments on sites, uploaded pictures and others.
The drawbacks? Anyone has the potential to find it and access it. Some employers may research the data of a potential employee candidate by just using popular search engines and social networks. Most of the time, they succeed more than expected as they find numerous activities that the candidate is hiding.
Theft is another concern. No matter how careful you set your privacy setting. As hackers are always seeking for flaws and bugs, both tech companies and users are depending on one another for saving the data they have. Cyber attacks are common as more people are posting more personal things on the web. As one of the easiest gateway for hackers to get your data is by sending emails and spam messages that target your personal credential just to get more out of you.
Their methods are not limited to malware, spyware, phishing, pharming and social engineering.
Privacy breach can create success to some while ruining the lives of most others. Online ads and surveillance can be either good or bad. But no matter how it can affects you, privacy should be kept in a place where it belongs, and it's definitely far from the web.
The solution to become totally anonymous on the web is by not sharing at all. But since posting, submitting, or sharing anything on the web is necessary to use the web as it is, users can use Anonymizer such as I2P - The Anonymous Network or TOR. This services can hide one's IP while still allowing them to use internet services. Additional software are also developed that may provide more secure and anonymous alternatives to other applications.
To minimize the chances of attacks, always mind your username, email and password, and their combination on any services as they're the only things hackers need to get easy access to your personal data. Beside using the man-in-the-middle method, getting your personal data using the login form is the most popular way of privacy breach. Using strong passwords that are often changed can make account breach more difficult.
Keeping private emails address different from work, and using temporary disposable email are other ways to keep spams in one place.
When posting and sharing things, private information should be kept far from the web. You should always see whether a page is using HTTPS protocol or not (ISP and others cannot know the contents of properly-encrypted data passing between its consumers and the internet).
When you're buying things online, you need to know whether or not you can be tracked by the information you're about to give. Many companies are sending internet users spams and ad materials because of users' lack of privacy concerns.
Read more: Finding a Safe and Secure E-Commerce Website
Most large tech companies offer registered users the ability to block certain ability the companies have on them. Like for example, limiting their mobile tracking method on Maps for Google. And also to other users from seeing their profile on Facebook. The privacy settings, although they're usually more concealed, are available for users to check and set. With this ability, users should be able to apply the setting they want to limit.
Further reading: Behind Free Things On The Web: Your Personal Data
Internet privacy is a learning in progress. It's a continuous effort as both tech companies and hackers are delivering different methods to confront one another. But no matter how many information about how to protect your privacy concerns are made, most people still have the slightest idea about how to do many of these things. Many internet users, although they do care about privacy, don't have the knowledge and training to run their own network security. Many businesses hire professionals just to sort these things and solve the issues for them, but most individuals can only do their best on their own to learn all these.