How to Tell if You’re Being Tracked Online

Last night, I had a disturbing experience online. My partner found a website called BlueKai, which deals in big data for marketing companies and offers customers with a registry so that they can see what information data companies collect and distribute about them. The blurb on BlueKai explains that your preferences “may be used anonymously to influence which types of marketing messages you receive across the Internet” (BlueKai 2013).

Though totally inaccurate for my partner, there was a lot of data on him – suggesting that he was a Gen X’er with an affluent income, interest in cars, and ability to access multiple lines of credit. However, when I visited this registry, I got this message:

We currently do not have any anonymous data on you.

“Well,” said my partner, “that’s good news! They can’t spam you with all sorts of junk messages, now.” Good and fine, I argued back – but why is this the case? Why is there nothing being tracked on my computer, while your browsing habits are broadcasted for the world to see?

This question continued to bother me into this morning, so I did a little bit of background digging. I use Firefox to browse the net, while my partner uses Google Chrome. Many articles (such as this one) claim that Google tracks everything you do, from email to browsing history. I switched away from Google Chrome to Firefox several years ago as a direct response to this concern, even though Firefox is a bit more prone to freezing up and stalling. I just don’t like the thought of companies pegging me as a certain kind of consumer.

However, even with Firefox I’m flying under the tracking radar. I found and installed the add-on Collusion, which is supposed to show in beautiful graph form the many websites watching you at any given time (Hill, 2012). Browsing around to several of my usual sites, I waited in vain for any sign of tracking to show up on my screen. Nothing.

This is either a very good sign, and I’ll never be pegged as a certain kind of consumer, or I’m missing something vital here.

This article by ABINE: The online privacy company gives a pretty good overview of the ways in which customers are tracked while online:

  1. Cookies (small pieces of data that websites can store on your computer) “tag” your computer as a unique visitor to any particular site. Cookies “can be used to help websites calculate how many visitors they have, customize the content of their site depending on the viewer, and assemble convenient tools, like online shopping carts and checkout options” (ABINE, Tracking 2013).
  2. IP addresses mean that “websites can 1) determine your geographic location down to the level of your zip code, and 2) keep track of all connections from the same IP address. If your IP address doesn’t change, then they have a good idea that it’s you every time you visit” (ABINE, Tracking 2013).
  3. Web bugs (aka. beacons) are “embedded into a website’s HTML to track who is viewing the page, at what time, and from what IP address […] their basic role is to do things like monitor a customer’s activity on a website and report whether an email was read or forwarded” (ABINE, Tracking 2013).
  4. Your browsing history is stored through JavaScript or a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) records that websites are able to access – the website then “maintains a list of all of the sites it is interested in, and if you are keeping a browsing history, it can learn whether you have visited those target sites in the past” (ABINE, Tracking 2013).

As I am constantly checking my own website’s visitation levels and evaluating the country, age, and basic demographic information of the people reading my blog, I can sympathize with companies that are looking to get a better idea of their potential consumers. But clearly, my own browsing habits  – i.e. using Firefox, deleting my browsing history, downloads, and cookies on a weekly basis, and ‘opting out’ of various marketing campaigns – has helped me to become a slightly-more-challenging-than-average consumer to watch online.

If you are concerned with being watched online, this article describes ten ways to avoid tracking, namely:

  1. Be aware of what you’re downloading.
  2. Know Terms of Service Agreements.
  3. Use anonymous search engines (e.g. DuckDuckGo or Epic Privacy Browser)
  4. Use a browser add-on to see who is watching you (e.g. Ghostery, Privacyfix or Do Not Track Plus)
  5. Use a tool to encrypt your connection (e.g. CyberGhost VPN or Tor)
  6. Monitor and limit your privacy settings on social media
  7. Use one email address for spam, one for professional contacts
  8. Change your passwords on different sites
  9. Regularly clear out the cookies and caches on your computer
  10. Use a service (note: you have to pay for this) to remove your data from data brokers (e.g. DeleteMe, Safe Shepherd and Catalog Choice)

Good luck, and happy browsing! Hopefully this article has helped you to better understand how you are being tracked and what you can do to avoid it.

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