Last week, I decided to review my professional social networks to figure out which ones to keep and which ones to release. This once-a-year task was straightforward and at the end of the process, I luxuriated in the satisfying “everything is up-to-date” feeling that many results-oriented people savour.
Just before moving onto my next task, it occurred to me that I might as well educate myself on how my personal data was being tracked on the Internet. What prompted me to do this? Well, I vaguely remembered reading a New York Times article called How to Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet a couple of months ago. It talked about how personal on-line information is collected, analyzed, stored, and then sold as a commodity to data brokers who might in turn “sell it to advertisers, employers, health insurers, or credit rating agencies.” Hmm, pause for thought.
The impact of the above information was further amplified when I read in an article by Tania Karas of Smart Money where she cited that “… more than 200 data collection companies and ad networks use approximately 600 different tracking technologies to gather and sell information on people’s web habits, according to Abine, an online privacy firm that tracks the trackers. The online advertising industry is a $31 billion business fueled largely by behind-the-scenes exchanges of consumers’ personal online shopping and browsing habits”. (Gasp! Now you have my time and attention).
To help figure out what this “data collection stuff” meant to me on a personal and professional level, I decided to plug my own personal data into the diagnostic tools available online (which I found through research and articles) and then share the results with others; so they too could decide the degree to which they were comfortable having their personal data exposed and disseminated here, there, and everywhere in cyberspace. As an aside, at this point I was feeling a little less confident with my “everything is up-to-date” status and ready to tackle a new online frontier.
How to keep your online activity private in 3 steps …
My first step, based on commentary from the New York Times article, was to download the FREE software Do Not Track Plus (DNT+) from Abine. As explained by Abine, the purpose of this tool is to prevent websites from relaying information about you and the websites that you visited to tracking companies, without slowing down your work flow.”
I installed the software on July 15, 2012 and only one week later, a handy DNT+ status bar visible in my browser indicated that a whopping 6,451 social tracking attempts were blocked. “Who’s tracking me?” I asked myself. With one click, the DNT+ software answered my question. Everyone who can!
For example, I now know that social networks such as Facebook have attempted to track me 1,404 times, ad networks such as Neilson, Audience Science, and Dedicated Networks have tried to follow my on-line trail 47 times, and tracking companies such as PointRoll, DoubleClick and ChartBeat have be blocked by DNT+ 5,000 times. (I had no idea that I was that interesting … or so potentially profitable for data profilers).
After reading an article called How to Prevent Google from Tracking You (CN Net January 2012), my next step was to test the anonymity of my browser through the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick. This FREE online tool is designed to show you the “identifiable information provided by your browser and to generate a numerical rating that indicates how easy it would be to identify you based solely on your browser’s fingerprint.”
According to the Panopticlick test result, my browser had a fingerprint that conveyed 20.14 bits of identifying information (you want to stay below 33 bits). If you are keen to figure out how the fingerprint benchmark was created, check out the 19-page study by the Electronic Frontier Foundation called How Unique is Your Web Browser?.
My third step was to put together a group of credible, cross-referenced articles that offered concrete steps that I could take with social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn (and others) to protect my personal data from the trawling nets of data collection companies and ad networks. It took me a bit of time, but step-by-step my personal data became more secure and I felt more empowered, knowledgeable and savvy.
Articles designed to inform, educate, and action …
Here are the eleven on-line articles and one study that helped me get a grip on where, why, and how my personal data and website visits were being tracked, analyzed, stored, and brokered to the highest bidder:
- 1. How to Muddy Your Tracks on the Internet (New York Times May 2012)
- 2. 10 Things Online Data Collectors Won’t Say (Smart Money April 2012)
- 3. How to Prevent Google From Tracking You (CNET January 2012)
- 4. How Unique is Your Web Browser (Electronic Frontier Foundation – Study)
- 5. 5 Ways to disappear from the web like Kathy Holmes during her divorce (Abine July 2012)
- 6. Five Smart Ways to Keep your Browsing Private (CNET January 2012)
- 7. How to Remove Your Google Web History (CNET February 2012)
- 8. Do Not Track Tools: Hands On Showdown (PC World April 2012)
- 9. Browser Add-On Stops Google (and Others) from Tracking you Online (PC World February 2012)
- 10. 10 Ways to Protect Your Privacy On-line (Newsweek October 2010)
- 11. Give Your Passwords a Security Checkup (USA Today July 2012)
- 12. How to Create and Remember Strong Passwords (The Huffington Post July 2012)
At the day, drilling down into the wily world of personal data mining is cloaked and complex. Through this exercise, it was clear to me that I was only touching the tip of the iceberg. On a personal and professional level, I decided that my goal was to bring myself to a point where I didn’t feel uneasy, invaded and quite frankly, used by social networks, tracking companies, and ad networks. Through careful research and implementation of non-tacking tools, I feel more safe and secure. Although, it is always prudent to remember that what you post (and where you surf) on the Internet is fully 100% trackable. Welcome to the future.