Column - Protect your online privacy with a few simple steps
Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012
Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:03
It’s said that "If you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product, not the customer." This adage is especially true with the expanding reach of the Internet.
Google and Facebook are only two of the most well known in a world of countless companies that specialize in tracking your online activity. These companies then pass along this information to the highest bidder; usually advertising agencies that wish to know as much about you as possible.
Age, gender, race, hometown, income, hobbies – the more these agencies know about you, the better. They often use this information to target you with specialized advertisements based on your browsing history (a Google advertisement once offered me great prices on orphans as I researched orphanages for a term paper).
You may be thinking to yourself: "So what? If companies want to tailor their ads to my interests, that’s fine by me."
True, at first glance this data mining doesn’t seem like much of a problem. Keep in mind, though, that once an advertising agency has your information, what they do with it is beyond your control. Companies’ databases are prime targets for hackers, and your browsing history and personal information can easily end up in the wrong hands.
Fortunately, you can take a few easy steps to secure your data from prying eyes.
First, it goes without saying that any Internet-connected computer (especially those running Windows) should have virus scanning software installed.
Contrary to what companies like Norton and McAfee would have you believe, quality virus scanners don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. AVG Anti-Virus and Avast Antivirus are both fine choices, and they both offer high-quality free versions. You can download these programs and browse many others at www.cnet.com.
Also, several useful browser add-ons for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome offer extensive protection from snooping data companies. Alan Henry suggests a few such programs at http://blog.lifehacker.com. First up is Adblock Plus ABP. As the name suggests, ABP is a handy ad-blocking program that streamlines your browsing experience.
More importantly, it can prevent Facebook, Twitter and Google+ from transmitting your browsing data on sites that use their "Like," "Tweet," and "1+" buttons. These social network buttons sometimes collect information on your browsing patterns whether you click them or not.
Seeing as nearly every website today has at least one of these buttons, this can give social networks an extensive look at your online activity, often without your knowledge. To block this data collection, simply add the "Antisocial" subscription (available at http://adversity.uk.to) to ABP’s ad filters.
Henry’s second recommended add-on is Ghostery. This program blocks a wide variety of tracking software found on the websites we visit daily.
One of its best features, though, is that it can show you it’s working in real time. Every time you load a site, a list of blocked tracking programs will pop up in the corner of your screen.
I strongly recommend enabling this feature when you set up Ghostery, as it gives you a good sense of the many ways companies try to track your browsing habits.
Finally, there’s Do Not Track Plus. This add-on’s features tend to overlap with those of Adblock Plus and Ghostery, but an extra layer of privacy protection never hurts. Much like the other programs, Do Not Track Plus prevents third parties from transmitting your data unless you expressly allow it (by clicking a "Like" button, for example). This add-on is especially useful for Internet Explorer users because Adblock Plus and Ghostery are not available for that browser.
To find and download any of these valuable programs, simply search Google for them.
They’re just a few simple ways you can help ensure that what you do online remains your business and no one else’s. Note that despite these programs’ great benefits they also come with a few drawbacks.
Some websites will not load properly while these tracker-blocking applications are running.
In my experience, major problems are extremely rare and temporarily disabling the privacy software only requires a few clicks.
If you value your privacy like I value mine, I highly recommend you look into any or all of these programs.
They’re simple to install and offer an added sense of security to your browsing experience. For more tips on protecting yourself online, check out http://lifehacker.com/privacy.