Tips and Tools For Avoiding Online Tracking
By now most of us are aware that our online activities are not private. From the National Security Association (NSA) spying allegations to targeted ads, online activity including search history and private data isn’t always safe from prying eyes. Many internet users are still unaware that their online activity is being monitored or that often the data generated while browsing online is used by corporations to promote products and tailor online experiences.
Data is a hot commodity and data brokers specialize in using tracking technology to collect data about you and your online activities. Data brokers compile data and then sell that data to different groups including business clients, the general public, and even other data brokers. Business clients may use the data to market new products and services to you. Your data may also be used for search or references services such as genealogy. In some cases this data can be used with malicious intent.
In a recent post Mandi Woodruff of Yahoo Finance Today notes that “it’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to expect anonymity online or off.” Despite our best efforts the data tracking industry is always evolving and “there’s little we know about data tracking and the companies that do it.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will publish the results of an investigation into nine major data brokers later this year.
Luckily there are steps you can take to limit the tracking that occurs while you are online. The tools and tips outlined below may be useful when attempting to limit online tracking of your activity.
Many search engines track every search that is preformed. They use this data for various purposes including improving their search algorithm but they also share this data with websites listed in the search results page. When you click on a URL from a list of results in a search engine “that website will often get a blurb of data telling them which search terms led you to their site, along with a log of your computer location and IP address.” Websites may use this data to send more ads to you based on your search history and even your IP location. This same search history data could also be used to alert authorities to individuals with suspicious searches on topics that relate to public safety such as bomb making.
To prevent search engines from tracking your searches consider taking the following steps:
- Make a habit of deleting your search history and cookies;
- Enable the “Do Not Track” (DNT) feature
- To initiate “DNT” on your browser, go into your browser preferences and look for the tab labeled “Privacy.”
- Check the box to enable the DNT feature.
- DNT is available on Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Explorer, and Safari.
- If you use a mobile device you will need to turn this feature on using the privacy settings on the mobile browser.
- Use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo or Ixquick which report that they do not track searches
Browser plugins like Ghostery and Disconnect.me allow you access to the world of data brokers. These plugins will allow you to see the data tracking sites that may be watching you while you search. These plugins allow you to see if a site is tracking you for analytics, advertisements or social media requests and lets you decide which sites to block and which ones to allow. The plugins do not stop ads from appearing but they do keep sites from tracking our online behavior in order to tailor ads to you.
Always look to be sure the URL for your connections begins with “https”. If you are sharing credit card or personal information it is important to check for this secure encryption. Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or all your online activity is another option to ensure your data is encrypted. Information sent over a VPN is encrypted and better protected from hackers and malware. Read the Why You Should Start Using a VPN post from Lifehacker for more information on VPNs including a list of VPN clients and apps.
While data brokers keep their work secrete the World Privacy Forums keeps a page of data broker opt out options. While it can be time consuming to go through the opt-out options on all the listed sites it is another step to take ensure you are not being tacked.
Don’t forget about the settings on your mobile devices. You will need to check your device and the apps that you use. Some apps, with access to your data, use your activity to tailor ads to you. You can adjust each app’s access to your data on the device. “The latest iPhone and Android updates also offer a new feature that stops apps from using ad tracking, but you’ll need to turn it on yourself.”