After the scandal involving the National Security Agency of the United States a couple of years ago, it was made clear that law enforcement agencies were spying on us. What you might not be aware of is that, in fact, having a major institution tracking your online activity has always been quite common. Except most of these aren’t government agencies, they’re just companies who want to make money out of your personal information, which you are joyfully giving away with every click you make online.
Don’t Be Evil
Let’s start with Google and your internet trail. The search giant is becoming well known for tracking everyone who uses their ecosystem of services. You must have noticed that their search engine slowly learns from your past searches and is always using your history to tailor your future search results in a better manner.
On top of this, we have Google AdSense and Google Analytics, which are the company’s main tools for advertising. Regular users don’t know them, but they are present in almost every major website on the internet and track every single interaction you have in them. Analytics builds a profile of you based on all your interactions online and lets website owners keep track of it. This, combined with the profile they keep of your web searches is enough to make a full report about pretty much all the online activity made by an average person.
The key thing about this is that most internet users are being profiled without their knowledge, even if most of them have given their consent by agreeing to Google’s terms and conditions at some point in their lives. This activity could be considered by a lot of people as an invasion of privacy, but as it happens with every major injustice on the planet, it is a very good business, so no one’s doing anything about it.
Have you ever wondered how is it that Facebook’s like and share buttons or Twitter’s retweet option can pop up in other websites? This is thanks to cookies, which are small files kept in your browser that identify you and allow you to remain signed in for a certain amount of time even after you’ve closed the website’s tab.
Cookies are a great tool that makes everything more comfortable but they are also being given other uses. Whenever you see a like button outside of Facebook, you can be sure that that website has informed the blue giant of your visit, helping it create a profile of your navigation just like Google does. This applies to almost every major social networks like Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
But profiling is not limited to navigation outside of their website. Facebook, for instance, is constantly analyzing the nature of the things you like in your timeline, from comments to images to videos. This information, as you might expect, is then used to show you ads that fit your profile. They even have an Artificial Intelligence that analyzes the contents of every image uploaded to the social network capable of identifying faces and associating them with their users. This is the thing responsible for tagging recommendations. I hope I don’t have to explain to you how creepy this is, but fortunately, this information doesn’t seem to be used by anyone except Facebook itself.
How Does This Affect You?
Privacy is a very valuable asset. So valuable that the industry surrounding your personal information on digital media is worth tens of billions of dollars. Your private information can be the thing separating you from a miserable life and you have all the right to keep whatever details about your life is hidden away from anyone who might want to use them to threaten you. If all this data stored by the media giants fall in the wrong hands they might be used for ill-intentioned purposes, so it is up to us to make sure we’re not playing their game.
Unfortunately for most of us, the digital era is slowly stripping us away from any trace of privacy we’ve had and it is becoming harder every day to get it back. The arrival of smartphones made it even more complicated. With all their sensors (microphones, cameras, GPS…) it becomes easier to spy on us and the amount of info that can be retrieved about our life expands enormously.
Some think our privacy is the price we have to pay for the advance of technology, but it shouldn’t be that way. There are many ways you can take action and stop those nosy companies from tracking your every move and here we present you with some:
Get a Hold of What You’re Sharing
To face a threat, first, you have to understand it. Maybe the first step you can take to prevent your information from leaking is identifying exactly what bits of information you are giving away. There are browser extensions like Data Selfie for Chrome which let you rebuild part of what could be considered as your data trace on Facebook. It is a matter of finding the correct tools to track and monitor what you’re giving away and understanding how to minimize these leaks.
Use Browsing Tools
Every modern browser has the equivalent of Chrome’s incognito mode. Depending on the exact browser you use, you may have a few more features while on this mode which offers you private browsing to some extent.
While on this mode, most browsers won’t keep a record of your browsing history, the searches you make, the information you submit on forms nor the cookies stored on any website. This is convenient for many reasons, however, it does not really protect you from being tracked while you are browsing in this private session. All this information is still generated as long as you keep the session going.
For this reason, Firefox has added an extra feature into its private browsing mode: tracking protection. While it is not bulletproof, this tool will try its best to prevent websites from tracking your online activity. Mozilla even released a browser dedicated solely to protect you from online trackers. It is called Firefox Focus, and while it’s only available for mobile platforms, most of its features are already included in their desktop version’s private browsing mode.
Another remarkable attempt to protect privacy online comes from the hand of the Opera browser. It allows you to turn on a VPN connection, basically coating your privacy with a strong armor against trackers. Although it may not be the most versatile VPN, the mere attempt of embedding it into the browser deserves a lot of recognition. What’s a VPN you ask? Just keep reading to find out.
Install a VPN
Enhancing your browsing habits is a good way of slashing the amount of data that can be tracked about you. Still, the absolute presence of trackers and the constant threat of having your internet traffic intercepted by eavesdroppers of any kind justifies an extra layer of online security. For this reason, you might want to consider using VPN software to connect to the internet.
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, allow you to redirect your internet traffic through a network of servers distributed around the globe. This way, trackers can’t obtain information from the packets coming from your computer, by the time they’ve reached the website, the VPN has already hidden or transformed any trackable details.
Good services like the ones provided by TorGuard let you choose the country of the server you’ll be connecting and do not keep any logs about your online activity, making you virtually untraceable should anyone be able to sneak in their servers’ content. Although there are many things you can do to protect your privacy online, adopting a VPN is by far the best option.