Nothing in life is free and that is particularly true of the Internet. Everyone wants free content, free apps and free email but there’s a trade-off: privacy.
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Ever wonder why ads follow you around the Internet or retailers suggest items online that actually make sense to you? It’s because free means advertisers get to know everything about you and your shopping habits.
“The Internet is basically advertising driven just like the days before cable TV,” says Vincent Steckler, chief executive of security software company Avast. “Any time you search for something or shop online different providers are tracking what you are doing and remembering.”
According to Robin Wilton, the identity and privacy director at The Internet Society, the nonprofit organization that advocates for a safe/open Internet, unbeknownst to many consumers is the ecosystem of companies on the other side of a web browser that make a living monetizing data about you. You may think you are just searching for something on Google or shopping on Amazon, but you are actually being brought into this ecosystem via cookies and the sharing of your data. “The Internet is watching you just as much as you’re watching it,” he says.
While many consumers don’t mind that Google (GOOGL) reads their email and serves up adds based on that, or that Facebook (FB) is tracking your online movements, for those people who still value privacy there are ways to reduce your digital footprint and get the retail stalkers off your back. From clearing out your cookies to browsing in private, here’s how.
Internet cookies do the stalking
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Online shopping has taken convenience to the next level but it also opens you up to stalking by retailers thanks to so-called cookies. Cookies are small pieces of data that are sent from the Website you visit and stored in your browser. Every time you go to that website, your browser sends the cookie back, providing the website with your previous activity. “It’s all about the cookies” in your browser, says Sean Sullivan, a security advisor for F-Secure, the Internet security company. “Hundreds or even thousands of cookies can accumulate if you do nothing.” According to Sullivanit’s a good idea to delete your Internet history every so often as well as your cookies. Wiltson says you can even set up your browser to wipe cookies every time you close it.
Do your due diligence
Before you download a free app or create a free email account, experts say to weigh how much your privacy matters with getting something on the cheap. If it does bother you that some of these services are sharing or using your data to make money then find providers who may cost a little more but will protect your identity online. Most companies lay out what they will do with your data in the fine print, so make sure to check that out.
Create a new persona
If you don’t like to be bombarded with ads or you can’t resist spending money when a deal does show up in your inbox, a way to avoid it altogether is to create a new Internet persona, says Wilton. Doing that can reduce your risks for all sorts of tracking and nefarious online activities. It’s also a good idea to set a low limit on your “online shopping credit card” just in case it falls into the wrong hands. “Using a different email and credit card for online shopping will ensure that you are only disclosing a partial personal identifier and limit you exposure to spam and financial fraud,” he says. Wilton says it can also be worthwhile to use one Internet browser for web searching and another one for online shopping so that retailers are limited in the data they can collect on you.
Enable your ‘do not track’ option
An often-forgotten about but effective feature on your browser is the ‘do not track’ option. Turn that on, and in theory websites can’t track where you are going and what you are doing online. Sullivan of F-Secure says not all Websites are willing to respect that but it can help. “If you have an Android phone, you should realize that when you are logged into Gmail on your laptop – and do a Google search – your search history will follow you (because of your Google account), and so will the ads,” he says.