How to Stop Online Tracking and Protect Your Identity
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Technology has become an integral part of our lives, and in most respects, it has enriched our daily existence, helping make the world smaller, more informed and connected. The problem with networked technology, however, is that everything can be tracked down.
Unbeknownst to some of you, every move you make on some websites is being tracked, recorded, compiled, and used to sell advertising or otherwise finance the sites that we all know and love. Ten years ago, it used to be just static banner ads and basic, yet primitive, website analytics, like things pertaining to visitor count and IP.
Today, enter the age of behavioral targeting. Every video you view, every website you visit, every game you play on Facebook—just about anything you do on the web is retrieved and collected. This information is used by advertising companies to relay the most relevant and targeted ads possible. Of course, it makes sense for companies to get the most out of their buck. Again, ten years ago you'd get ads about women's beauty care products served to men or running shoes to paraplegics and all kinds of irrelevant targeting.
So, today it seems everybody's happy. Website can serve targeted ads and thus ask advertisers for more money (though in reality, this isn't necessarily the case since the targeting standard has gone up for all kinds of publishers). Advertisers now make a much better return on investment because they now sell to the right people. And users, well, users should happy they get to browse a website for free and have more relevant ads served to them. However, this comes at a certain cost: privacy. If you have no problem with this and care not that your online activity is monitored and then used to make money by a third party, then really everybody's happy. If you do have a problem with this, know you can do something about it.
Here are few tips on how to protect your privacy online:
Opt out of behavioral tracking
After you opt-out, you will continue to receive ads—it just means you won't receive ads specifically tailored to your online actions.
Luckily, there are regulating bodies that follow and monitor how and what types of ads are getting served on websites. The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) is a cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies which claims it offers consumer protection through self-regulation. NAI offers an opt-out tool, which you can use to scan to see which advertising companies are currently using information gathered from your browsing habits. When I scanned, it took a while—apparently, 70 advertising networks were using my browsing info. Of important note is after you opt-out, you will continue to receive ads—it just means you won't receive ads specifically tailored to your online actions.
PrivacyChoice.org offers a more advanced solution, which includes features like a consolidated opt-out bookmark that opts you out of over one hundred ad networks, including those in the NAI. They also have a great feature, where you can enter the address of your favorite website - say Pinow.com - and it will show you what advertisers use data about your browsing habits on that website.
If you're genuinely interested in finding out more how websites gather data, Digital Trends has a fantastic list of the top 100 websites on the web, listing under each website what advertisers are tracking your online behavior and how they do it.
Change cookie settings
It's a good idea to change your browser's cookies to expire when you exit your browser and disallow third-party cookies from being set. Here's how you do it in Google Chrome:
- Click the "list" icon in the top right corner of the screen
- Select "Settings"
- Scroll to the bottom and select "Show Advanced Settings."
- Under "Privacy", select "Content Settings"
- Select "Keep local data only until I quit my browser / for current session", and check "Block third-party cookies and site data".
Use https encryption
Many sites on the web offer some limited support for encryption over HTTPS, but make it difficult to use. For instance, they may default to unencrypted HTTP, or fill encrypted pages with links that go back to the unencrypted site. If you want your private conversations with websites not to be snooped on or tampered with by other parties, consider installing a software or browser add-on that encrypts your communications in https on major websites that offer this option. I use HTTPS everywhere - works with Chrome and Firefox.
Log out of spy sites and start private browsing
This should have been actually at the top of the list, since this is the first step you need to take if you need to surf as private and anonymous possible (there's no such thing as completely anonymous on the Web). You see, even if you aren't browsing websites owned by Google (YouTube, Google search, Gmail, etc.) or Facebook, if you're logged in to one of these services, they can track your moves. Again, even if there aren't any tabs open with these services in your browser, they still can track your moves if you're logged in. Solve this simply by logging out and resetting your cookies.
Then, be extra safe by surfing the web using private browsing. In Chrome, this is known as "incognito mode" and in Firefox as "private browsing" under settings.
This is how I keep my browsing safe. It's definitely not 100% foolproof, but at least it gives me a sense of security, false or not. Notice that I didn't list Adblock here. While using it will solve much of your advertising tracking problems, I don't believe it's ethical using it. Most websites make their revenue—revenue that they use to provide you with awesome content for free—out of display advertisement. If we'd all use Adblock, then every major, value-providing website would cost money. Think about it.
About the Author:
Larry Harrison is a forensic pathologist by training, and one of the founders of itsGov.com—the complete on online forensics science and crime scene investigation network.
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