Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…. or at least sell you something. Here’s a fun experiment: Go online and spend 15 minutes shopping for kitten food and kitten sundry – See what happens to the ads that pop up the websites you visit.
Advertisers, Data Houses and Bad Guys are collecting your data every time you hop on the internet.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the ways they do it:
IP Tracking – Each of us has a routing number associated with our online travels. Much like a home address, it allows information to be delivered to the right location. Since many of us are on broadband connections these days, that number doesn’t change too often and in the very least can track what ISP you’re coming from.
Avoidance: Consider using a VPN or Proxy service. Your traffic is routed out and back through their machines, giving you a small degree of seperation between yourself and the web. All their servers see is an incoming request from your service, and not you directly.
Cookie Tracking – A bit of a holdover from the 90’s but still effective, are cookies. Little scraps of text stored in your browser that allow different sites to store user or connection information… or for advertisers to track your online habits with.
Avoidance: Disable Cookies, then delete your existing cookies. The process will vary based on your browser, but can be easily found by typing “disable cookies [browser name]” in your favorite search engine.
Behavioral Tracking – Most of us have some pretty predictable behavior when it comes to visiting different websites. We generally check the same news, visit the same bank, use the same search engines… we are creatures of habit. Those habits allow organizations to build a profile of you, and even track you on different devices and locations.
Avoidance: There’s not a lot you can do to change who you are, but you can help achieve a little bit of life partitioning by using one browser for things like banking, another for social media, and another for your more sensitive browsing. I’d like to you imagine a scenario where a bad guy can connect your personal / financial / sensitive browsing history. As much as you can, I would try to keep these worlds as far apart as possible.
Browser Fingerprinting – Most of us (unless we’ve taken specific steps to avoid it) have a browser profile that can be used to identify us. That browser fingerprint can be tracked across multiple sites by advertisers to target specific ads to you. In particular, companies will look at screen resolution, fonts and plugins installed to create a profile.
Avoidance: There’s not a lot you can do hear without really battoning down the hatches. Disabling Java and Flash and Cookies and adding Adblockers is a great place to start, but that is going to limit some of the functionality of the web -this isn’t world ending, but will occasionally be inconvenient. If you read the section on Behavioral Tracking, you’re already considering using multiple browsers. I have a primary browser that’s locked down, and 95% of the time, I don’t lose any functionality. If there’s something I REALLY REALLY need to see, I can always use another less secure browser. Most of the time I notice that pages load faster when there’s not a ton of ads being injected.
Covert Traffic Sniffing – After the more recent revalations about government snooping, we should all be aware that there are folks tapping the wires. These group include friendly nation states, unfriendly ones, advertisers, bad guys, and the simply curios. The internet is a noisy place, and all one needs to do is set themselves up as the man in the middle of that relay to intercept everything moving through.
Avoidance: Don’t use the internet – that’s it. There’s a large group of friendly nations tracking and sharing EVERYTHING that moves across the internet. No need to get a warrant or court approval when another friendly nation is happy to share it with us. Then there’s the unfriendlies and other nation states… forgettaboudit!!! The only piece of really good advice you’ll get is: Do NOT use public Wi-Fi for sensitive stuff like banking….ever. Anyone can setup a wifi node, name it whatever they want and record everything that goes through.
Malware & Adware – Some advertisers decided it would be best to forget tracking you online and go straight to the source… all that’s needed is a tiny little program that runs on your computer or a plugin within the browser itself.
Avoidance: A good antivirus and malware removal software will clean most of this up. Other than that, just uninstall Flash completely. Even large websites are accidentally delivering malware via flash exploits embedded in advertising. Additional: When installing and updating software don’t ever click anything but “Custom Install” you’ll be surprised by how often adware is bundled into every day products – be careful when installing.
Your Operating System – If you’ve got Windows 10, by default you’ve been assigned an advertising ID. In essence Windows 10 defaults to Adware mode.
Avoidance: You might want to go to Start –> Settings –> Privacy and start toggling those buttons. In particular, check out the advertising ID under the general section. Also, click around and un-click as necessary.
I mentioned bad guys, and that’s for a very good reason. Many of us consider our online browsing habits private… and they are not. As we develop more ways to combat tracking, advertisers are looking for new ways to monitor you. Be aware that the things that you do online are being watched and act accordingly. It’s not to hard to imagine data houses selling off your browsing history to anyone willing to pay… or not selling it if you’re willing to pay A LOT more.
Ad Block Plus – Disables ads before they load
Duck Duck Go – Search engine that doesn’t save your lookup history
Privacy Badger – Adaptive privacy tool sponsored by the EFF
Spybot Search and Destroy – Free adware removal tool
Ubuntu Live – A distribution of Linux ideal for use when you are surfing sensitive information. No cookies are saved, no browser history, and you’re using a setup that’s similar to everyone else using the same Ubuntu build. You just plugin the Ubuntu Live media, reboot your computer and BAM… you are using Linux.