For a long time, internet privacy seemed to only concern the conspiracy theorists and worriers among us. But these days it’s getting harder to tell the difference between reality and an episode of Black Mirror.
Which brings us back to here and now, a time when government surveillance and online tracking isn’t a work of fiction anymore, but rooted in real life. But what does all that info – your favorite sites, purchase history, places where you lived, articles you’ve read, liked, shared, commented on – add up to anyway?
@aparnapkin I literally did that today.
— Charlie Brooker (@charltonbrooker) January 27, 2017
If you thought that online tracking couldn’t happen to you, think again. Here are just a few pieces of “internet baggage” you didn’t know you had:
1. Third-Party Sites
Has loading web pages felt like a drag lately? Online trackers are probably to blame. Using Lightbeam, a Firefox add-on that helps expose online tracking, it’s easy – and surprising – to see that visiting a single website actually opens a door for dozens upon dozens of third-party sites that happily tag along to every page you navigate to.
A few years back we made a video of grandparents reacting to data tracking. They weren’t pleased to say the least. (So we showed them Lightbeam.)
For now, these third-party sites mainly exist to gather enough information to serve ads and make some money from click-throughs. The more relevant an ad is to you, the more likely you’ll want to “Learn More” and “Buy Now.” To some, having ads that are in tune with what you’re searching for probably seems like a plus. Regardless, you should still have control over what advertisers know about you, if they know anything about you at all, which can be tough when web trackers operate in the background – out of sight.
One way to dial down the creepiness factor is to use Private Browsing with Tracking Protection right in Firefox, which prevents companies from tracking your search history across multiple sites. When you browse in a Private Window, Firefox doesn’t save the pages you visit, cookies, searches or temporary files. It’s not a bulletproof solution, but for everyday web browsing it might just give you some peace of mind.
2. Your Web History, Yourself
We all have personal info, like our phone numbers, recent YouTube likes, or maybe even that angsty Myspace page you made years ago, that we’d rather erase from memory – and the internet.
Unfortunately, that’s just not how the web works. As our own privacy and engagement manager Stacy Martin pointed out recently: “It’s difficult to erase [your data] on the internet. There’s a common saying in the privacy world that ‘The internet is written in ink, not pencil.’”
As a result, every byte of data you share gets logged and archived. Forever. Identifying details that you probably don’t even remember providing years ago. Things like your birthday, home address, party affiliation. Names of family members and where they live. Take a sec to look yourself up on a data broker, like Spokeo, Anywho.com or Whitepages, and you’ll get a sense of just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Then take the necessary steps to remove yourself from those sites if you’re not into being listed there.
If you use Google products, you can create an archive of your data with Takeout to get a sense of the info that the tech behemoth has on you. Just bear in mind that downloads are über time-consuming (it’s a lot of data), and this is more of a visibility thing. Just because you have a copy of your data does not mean it’s erased from Google’s archives.
3. The Price of Your Private Data
Online trackers have long operated in a Wild West-like environment with few consumer protections in place (most sites don’t ask for permission to track you, for example). So every time you sign online, you implicitly agree to direct and indirect surveillance by the sites you visit. Sounds shady to begin with, but it gets worse: soon, internet service providers (ISPs) won’t just be able to see your search history and browsing habits, but they may be able to sell that information. All that internet baggage you didn’t know you had could now go to the highest bidder. While some ISPs have said they won’t sell your data, they’ve been pushing back on privacy rules for years. Do you really want to put your browsing history in their hands?
So you’re probably wondering: Am I doomed? The answer is: not if we have anything to say about it! For some, ignorance is bliss and it’s easy to turn a blind eye to what you can’t see. But for the rest of us (like you and other concerned web denizens) knowing where the weaknesses are is exactly the first step in working towards a safer internet for everyone.