We've all had the experience. You search online for something a little bit out of your normal comfort zone - let's say, an interesting new creme brulee recipe - and think nothing of it. But as the hours pass by, you notice something's different. Real Simple keeps coming up as your first search engine hit, your spam box is filled up with chicken noodle soup recipes from Bon Appetit, and all of the sudden Martha Stewart is a regular on your Facebook trends. The horror! But while your culinary tastes might be your own damn business, these violations are a much bigger deal if, let's say, the NSA thinks you're a terrorist or even a dissenter. 

It's obvious that someone is watching but how do we know for sure? And is there anything you can do to stop it? We asked some web junkies what they thought.


How can you tell you are being watched online? . Image 1.

James Hodges

PhD student, Rutgers University

When something online seems 'free,' chances are it's being paid for one of two ways: with your attention, or with your personal data.

Audience attention has been a premium product for over a century. Throughout the twentieth century, broadcast radio and TV made good money without charging the audience for content, because advertisers picked up the bill. The business model hasn't changed too much since then, even if ad targeting has gotten more specific.

I recently shared a bunch of hip-hop videos on Facebook, and then got served a bunch of ads for bail bonds. It became obvious that I was being tracked and profiled by a really insensitive algorithm. 

It's been legitimate public knowledge for over a decade that the federal government monitors online communication.

On a more banal level, you can look in your browser history any time to find all the "cookies" that sites leave behind, which often report your browsing habits back to HQ. 

If you want to maintain privacy more seriously, you could use TOR, encrypt your email, and browse on "private" all the time. You could go further if you want, and use BitCoin to buy your groceries. But something tells me going that far off the grid probably attracts more attention than it avoids. 

Avoiding sneakiness without sacrificing privacy is one of the main ideas behind TrackMeNot, a privacy plugin I used to work on at NYU. Instead of blocking surveillance, TrackMeNot spams out your history with a ton of whatever is trending in a given month. This way you still seem like a normal internet user, but you're hidden behind a pile of mass culture. It's like using a smoke screen instead of trying to become invisible.


How can you tell you are being watched online? . Image 2.

Peter Yeh

Senior Systems Administrator

There's literally no way to know if you're being watched online. You can be monitored in a multitude of ways, from a kid across the street hacking your webcam with a RAT (Remote Access Trojan) to see you naked, to a state actor putting in a splice at the phone company. Digital information can be copied perfectly, without interruption to the original data stream. Modern phone taps make no noise, because the data is just being copied.

If you want to feel extremely unsafe, Van Eck Phreaking is using a special antenna to detect the tiny electromagnetic leaks your monitor makes, and then using that to reconstruct what you're seeing. Equipment can be sensitive now to be able to read your keystrokes with an antenna.

In the end there's only three types of threats -- your spurned lover hacking your Facebook (use 2-factor authentication, and don't tell anyone your password),  RATers trying to steal your credit card data (keep your computer and antivirus updated) and, finally, a state actor (god help you because nothing will help you there).


Cover illustration: Sergii Rodionov