When you are online, the world knows who you are, where you have been surfing, what you have bought (or plan to buy) and where you live. And that is just for starters. The amount of information we give out without realizing it is surprising to most people, and it is something that we need to be aware of if we want to maintain some privacy and security.
Just searching the web is a way to have your personal preferences tracked and targeted. Did you look up a new vehicle online? Did you look at a couple of sites that have it featured? Do you think that nobody was paying attention to that? And are you seeing more car ads in the pages you visit than you did before?
There is more than a coincidence at work here – the advertising sites are so widespread and sell each other so much information that we are all fast becoming the product that companies consume. Just as Facebook has turned the games and apps into a way to capture information about its users, to be sold to the highest bidder, the advertising networks are continually trying to get as much information about you as possible, so that their clients can better market their wares to you.
If you use the Chrome web browser (https://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/browser/)you can install an extension called Ghostery to see who and what are tracking your web surfing. Ghostery (http://www.ghostery.com/), a product of Evidon, Inc., based in New York City, lets you block out “ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity” and even provides a link to see what each one does and what they collect. The results will amaze you.
MSNBC has 8 trackers on its main page including AppNexus, DoubleClick, DoubleClick Floodlight and Omniture. Fox News has 9 trackers including DoubleClick and Chart Beat. CNN has 8 trackers including Chart Beat and Omniture. See how they overlap? That allows each one to collect the pages you visit and the stories you read on each site and determine all sorts of things about you. Add the hidden information that your browser sends out and they know where you are and what your browser and Internet provider are. It doesn’t take too long before the dossier is full of information about your likes and dislikes, political leanings and food preferences, and all manner of things that you have told them – without even realizing it!
Among the ways that you can hide your tracks from “services” like these is to work on anonymizing your surfing. There are lots of companies that offer service that will help you keep your online presence hidden, and many of them come with a price tag. I prefer to do things as inexpensively as possible, especially if I learn something in the process of setting it up. Ghostery helps out with the learning as well as making it easy to put blocks in place all at once, and it is free.
You can tweak settings as much or as little as you want and you have the ability to remove the blocks for certain sites as you see fit. The biggest complaint I see in the reviews is that there is too much that you can configure. If you are someone who fiddles around with settings all the time that is certainly true, but if all you want to have is a program that works for you the way it says it will, Ghostery gives you a simple setup that requires minimal work.
I have been using Ghostery for a couple of weeks now and I am still surprised at the number of hidden data collectors that are out there. With Ghostery I know that I no longer have to worry about them tracking me again.
UPDATE: Ghostery is available for all major browsers, not just Chrome. You can download it from http://www.ghostery.com/download. Thanks to Mark Naples for the correction!