I hear the same alarm. But I also visited Amazon dot com this week and shopped for all sorts of things. If you think that the surveillance and data collection that happens at an Amazon Go retail location is creepy, well friend, it’s got nothing on what Amazon can glean from what happens on its website.
Keep that tension in your mind as we turn to Mozilla and Firefox. The core thing that Mozilla is doing is trying to encrypt DNS, which stands for Domain Name Service. When you visit a website like www.theverge.com, what you’re actually visiting is a much less descriptive series of numbers. DNS is the address lookup that tells your browser that the human-readable domain — theverge.com — is located at a particular IP address.
For most browsers, that address lookup isn’t encrypted, which means your internet service provider (or anybody else interested enough to snoop on it) could see what websites you’re visiting. Putting DNS behind a secure connection means that it’s less likely that snoops could see where you’re going.
The decision is controversial on a number of fronts. There’s the ever-present concern about protecting kids form predators, of course, but there’s also a large group of security experts who think it’s not actually all that effective.
On the whole, I think that Mozilla’s decision is fundamentally good, even with the above caveats. That’s because it shifts the Overton Window for privacy, just a bit. Whatever you think of its efficacy, the shift helps to change our default assumptions about privacy, Specifically, browsing should be fully private.
If you haven’t connected the DNS story with the Amazon story on your own, let me lay it out more explicitly.
I don’t think we’ve fully grappled with the idea that by default there’s not an expectation of privacy with what we do online. Think about it in other contexts: would you recoil at the idea of a company knowing what books you casually browsed at the library or bookstore? Probably you would, which is why the Amazon Go concept seems so squiggy (technical term).IF TRACKING WHAT YOU BROWSE IN A STORE OR A LIBRARY IS WEIRD, SHOULDN’T IT BE WEIRD ONLINE TOO?
Until we got on the web, our browsing habits were private by default. Now, they’re not.
For web browsing, I admit that there are contexts where trusted people like parents (or less trusted but still in power over your time, like the company you work for) might have a legitimate reason for gathering information on the websites you visit. But for the most part, what we choose to look at should be our business — whether that happens online, in a library, or in a grocery store. And yet the default assumption online is that certain companies get to gather and use that information.
Specifically your ISP, the company that provides your web browser, or even any company that manages to drop a cookie on a website you happen to visit can all gather data on your web browsing habits.
In a different world, one where we made different choices about how to construct and pay for the web in the early days, the online tradeoffs we’ve all agreed to would seem as bizarre as Amazon Go cameras tracking our every move in a grocery store. In this world, though, why have we accepted one online trade as normal while finding the trade of cameras in a store to be weird?
When it comes to the online world, Mozilla’s solution may not be perfect. But it seems like a step in the right direction to me. As do all the other changes that are coming to web browsers — even Google Chrome is coming around to reducing tracking, as I’ve written about before.
For the past twenty years at least, we’ve been living in a world where the default assumption is that it’s okay for companies to track our browsing habits because we get something in exchange. But if you’re squigged out by having your real-world store browsing habits tracked, sit with that feeling and ask yourself: should you feel differently about online browsin