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Scary, invisible web tunnels

By Jean-Claude Elias - Nov 20,2014 - Last updated at Nov 20,2014

It used to be a web. Now it’s a tangled web.

So it’s agreed, we’re all connected now and there’s no going back or disconnecting. The term, however, has taken a new dimension with the complexity of the connection, or the interconnection should I say. Coping with this complexity is not a matter to be taken lightly. Few, if any, are in control or are happy about all the aspects of the intricate web.

Gone are the days when the choice was a simple one, to be connected to the Internet or to work offline. We know now that not much can be done by staying offline. From smartphones and all the way up to computer servers, every machine, every device is online, all the time.

What is making most of us feel uneasy are the underlying, invisible threads that are being woven and are connecting the multiple aspects of the web without us knowing or really understanding how and when it is all working.

Sometimes it’s ads that pop up on your Google’s Gmail page, based on text contents of your e-mail messages and that you cannot stop. At other times it’s info you find while browsing the home page of cnn.com and that bring you news of your cousin, just because you happened to communicate with him a day before, on… Facebook, for example.

It’s when you buy goods online and pay with your Paypal account that is linked to your credit card that sends you payment updates on your smartphone via SMS.

Still, the above examples are nothing compared to having a Google account and letting it control your Android smartphone in countless ways. Unless you have mastered the art of opting out, deselecting and declining, you’ll find your contacts and your calendar synchronised with whatever data you have entered in your Gmail. You never wanted this in the first place. You thought you had 500 contacts on your phone and find 1,000 all of a sudden because of the synchronisation that took place in the background. 

E-mail follows the same complexity path. If your smartphone, your laptop, your tablet and your desktop computer (perhaps several of each) are set to view your e-mail, do you really find your way around what has been received, viewed, answered, deleted, and so forth? Naturally tech-heads will tell you to be careful about IMAP versus POP3 e-mail setting to better control the many places where you check your e-mail, but you may not be interested in techno babble at all.

Of course, this global interconnection has advantages. A centralised Google account on Android will maintain an updated list of whatever apps you bought on Google Play store. You never have to pay twice as long as your devices are connected using the same account, i.e. a Gmail address, usually. This is a big plus.

Backing up and synchronising data on the cloud, across several devices is also a non-negligible advantage, as long as you understand and realise what’s happening and don’t get lost in the complexity.

Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google Play, YouTube, Gmail, App Store and all those big networks within the bigger one, they all use your computer features, functionality and cached memory to build invisible data tunnels to exchange information and exploit it to their advantage. Online music streaming services do exactly the same. Nothing is entirely free and no one is innocent. There is nothing such as altruism on the web, and it’s getting more and more insidious every year that passes.

There’s the obvious, straightforward Internet link that you “see”, being your device connected to the web, and then there’s the hidden channels that are built more or less behind your back. Some of us control them better than others but most can’t. A few don’t even understand what’s going on.

With the newer IPv6 Internet standard that can allocate a flabbergasting number of IP addresses to devices connected to the Internet in the world, things are not going to be simpler. An IP address is a number that uniquely identifies a device on the web, a bit like someone’s telephone number, with the country and area code included. Until recently the older IPv4 protocol was in force, and had a limit of about 4.5 billion different IP addresses “only”. IPv6 is now being implemented and has come to satisfy the ever growing need for more addresses. It provides 8 x 1028 times more addresses than IPv4. This should be enough for a while.

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