July 18, 2024


Sapiens Digital

Online Privacy Risks: That 0% of Awareness

9 min read


If you have been following my router reviews — and you likely have considering you’re reading this — you’ll note that I tend to mention the “online privacy risks” in increasing instances in the past couple of years.

And the case of the eero Pro 6E must have been the crescendo on this front. As I mentioned in the post, I was so concerned about the privacy risks that, for the first time, I didn’t want even to test it.

eero Pro 6E: Why You Should Only Get It for Free, If at All!

Since that post, I’ve gotten many messages on the subject. In a good mount, folks expressed concerns and asked for advice. Others, from eero fans presumably, got defensive and personal, calling me names at worst or accusing me of “being biased” at best.

So, in this post, I’ll explain my take on online privacy and the risks of losing it (when using a Wi-Fi router) in layman’s terms. Whether or not you agree with me, it can be a fun read on a slow weekend.

Asus ZenWiFi Pro ET12 31
What happens within your home router is generally a mystery. One thing is for sure: a lot is going on.

(Real-life) privacy: It’s a matter of degree

To understand online privacy, let’s get on the same page on what privacy means in real life — and I don’t mean what the dictionary says.

Privacy: The norm

In my crude opinion, real-life privacy, applicable to his post’s topic, is a matter of exposing ourselves to the degree that doesn’t irk or offend any involved parties.

It’s about being appropriate, which includes the desire to be left alone and the ability to leave others alone.

As such, privacy is nuanced. Let’s be a little more specific.

Behind closed doors, anything goes; you do what you want. Alone, you can walk around shirtless, in your underwear, even naked. If you’re in a relationship, it’s probably OK to skinny-deep in a private pool when your partner is around — you’d hope so anyway. The more intimate the setting, the less privacy apply to the involved parties.

Out of the door, you generally expect to be anonymous to folks you see on the streets, just like they are to you. Generally, you might acknowledge their existence with a smile, a “Hello, how are you?” or a nod and expect the same in return.

Sometimes you might even try to strike up a friendly conversation, introduce yourself, and learn a bit about a stranger. The whole thing may turn into a new friendship or nothing. But everyone goes on their merry way.

To ensure that you don’t reveal too much about yourself or bother others, you don’t wear your credit card, ID, social security number, or even your name on the back of your shirt, which also means you keep your clothes on.

Sometimes, you need to reveal yourself a bit more, such as when you walk into a store and buy something. Now, you identify yourself via your credit or ID card but only to the party who handles the transaction.

All the while, you know, via visual, that there’s nobody following you, watching what you’re doing, or how you spend your money. The vendors know what you buy, but only within their particular shop.

In other words, though you’ve been exposed to the outside world, your privacy is intact because you’re comfortable with the exposure.

Privacy: The unexpected

Once in a while, stuff happens.

Like when you’re having a me-time in your room and the police barge in because they have a “no-knock” warrant and make a mistake on the address.

Or that time when you walk from the train station to your car under heavy rain only to find it has been broken in.

Or when you’re busy writing on a deadline in your home office and your wife walks in asking you to hold your infant baby for an hour because she has “something important” to do.

The last example is a bit of a stretch, but in those cases, you feel bothered or even violated, and rightfully so. It’s the level of (unexpected) exposure you’re uncomfortable facing.

And it can also happen the other way around. A couple of years ago, I stumbled into a section of the Naturist Beach in Brighton (UK). It made me feel uneasy and took me a long time to unsee what I had seen.

So again, privacy is a matter of being exposed appropriately. So long as involved parties are comfortable, it’s OK — then it’s not a privacy issue.

It’s in the awareness

But to be comfortable or uncomfortable, we first must be aware of what’s going on through our senses. And that’s generally a given in real life, where things are, well, real.

In any case, when we’re not aware, privacy, or the lack thereof, is almost always a security matter — it’s now a risk. Would you walk around your home naked if you know someone — not anyone in particular — is peeping? I wouldn’t.

And that brings us to online privacy.

Privacy risks occur when you’re unaware of your exposure.

Online privacy: Ignorance is (not) bliss

In the cyberworld, the notion of general privacy above applies, but the element of awareness doesn’t.

That’s because everything on your screen is literally fake, as I explained in this post about online security. And there’s always more stuff than what’s shown on the screen.

Online security: It’s all on you

For the most part, we never know the complete picture of what’s happening behind the scenes. Let’s take a specific example regarding your personal information via the simple act of visiting a website.

Online privacy: There’s always hidden stuff

You’re reading this page and probably find it interesting — and it gets better. What you might be unaware of is the following:

You’ve given away your IP address. It’s true. That’s the case when you visit any website or access any online service.

From the IP, I, the website owner, can find out where you come from, how long you’ve been on the site, how often you’ve visited it, etc.

And that’s fine. So far, that’s similar to when you’ve entered a store. You’re still anonymous.

Now, if you have an account with DKT, such as a subscriber, I’d also know your name and email address — you’re no longer anonymous. But that’s still OK. It’s like you’ve decided to buy something at the store using a credit card. You trust me enough.

Online Privacy risks: Dong Knows Tech Activity Log
Here’s a section of Dong Knows Tech’s live traffic report, which shows the visitors’ locations, IP addresses, and other info.

But here’s where things start to get scary:

Your Wi-Fi router “knows” all that, too. In fact, it can keep tabs on everything you do online, all the websites you’ve visited, and your other activities, such as shopping, streaming, chatting, texting, and so on.

So, if you happen to (accidentally) send a naked picture of yourself to another party, that picture goes through your router. When you have a live chat with your partner, the entire section goes through the router.

Wi-Fi router: What it is and how to pick your perfect one

In short, everything you do online goes through a router, likely the one you have at home. The router is the gateway to the internet, so to speak.

Many routers allow you to manage what it keeps tabs on and for how long, but you must be the owner — or the controller, to be more precise — of that router.

If you use a router that doesn’t allow direct access to how it works or limited access, you don’t know what it really does with your information. And if you use a router made by a company that forces you to log in via an account before you can manage your network, your privacy is generally at the mercy of that company.

In this case, it’s like you actively report your every move to a third party. And this is the scariest part: That happens completely without your direct knowledge. There’s no visual, no warning. It’s total unawareness.

The gist is this your home router plays a huge part in your online privacy (and security.) Not all routers are created equal, but if a router is compromised — by design or accident — you and your entire family are at risk of being monitored, scammed, or manipulated. Privacy is among those risks.

If your home router is compromised — by design or otherwise — your entire family are at risk of being monitored, scammed, or manipulated. Privacy is among those risks.

It’s worth noting that the behind-the-scene items I described above are just examples of things that happen when you visit a website. At any given time, there are more parties out there standing by to pry on you, especially when you use a VPN service or a special DNS server.

Asus Web History Page
The Web History page of an Asus router

Online privacy: It’s also a matter of degree

Of the messages defending the eero Pro 6E, many told me that the data collection is common and happens with all vendors.

While that might be true, it’s about the degree. Most networking vendors offer options where users can use their products completely without getting connected to the vendor. You only have to log in or risk data collection when you turn on certain features, like online protection or QoS.

Most importantly, popular networking vendors like Asus, Netgear, TP-Link, Ubiquiti, etc., are independent and relatively small companies. Consequently, their data collection and the use of the collected data are somewhat limited in both scope and pervasiveness. Sometimes, that’s purely for technical purposes.

On the other hand, eero is owned by Amazon, which already has lots of data on its users in different aspects — Amazon is not a networking company. So if you’re an Amazon prime user and use an eero router, your exposure (to Amazon) is much higher than if you have a router from another networking vendor.

Tips on online privacy

To keep your privacy risks low, it’s a good idea to fragment your exposure by using different services or products for different needs.

The more deeply you get into an “ecosystem” — those of Amazon, Apple, Google, or Facebook — the more likely your privacy is compromised.

If you want to stay somewhat anonymous, use different (email) accounts for different (sets of) devices or services.

Convenience is generally the antithesis of online privacy.

But again, privacy is a matter of degree. Make sure you read each company’s privacy policy before opening up your network activities. The more vague or general the policy is, the less you should trust the company.

It’s worth noting that these policies are designed to primarily protect the company legally. They are not necessarily an accurate indication of what the company will or will not do with your data. The only true thing is that whoever controls your router can keep tabs on everything you do online.

The takeaway

On the privacy matter, I’ve heard many saying that they “have nothing to hide,” so it doesn’t matter. That’s like saying it’s OK to streak as long as you’re unaware or comfortable with the fact that you’re naked.

Unlike running naked, there are real consequences to getting overexposed in the cyberworld.

Our social circles are similar to an onion with layers that define different levels of intimacy. No matter how open-minded or comfortable you’re inside your skin, you might not want to have that instant meaningless zero degree of separation with a stranger whose intention is to benefit themselves at your expense.

And that might be what’s happening right now, to different degrees, depending on which router you’re using, whether or not you’re aware of or comfortable with it.


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