Invisible Stalkers: Every Move You Make Online Is Being Tracked

Identity thieves aren’t the only prying eyes on the Internet. Mainstream Web sites and their advertising partners track our digital doings as well. Some of this tracking is innocent and even beneficial – for example, an Internet merchant might record which items we browse to that it can suggest related products the next time we visit. Unfortunately, online tracking can cross the line from welcome feature to worrisome invasion of privacy. Sites often sell information about us to other companies… install tracking files onto our computers without our permission…and allow ad-tracing companies to lurk unseen on their sites, gathering information about us.

Who’s Doing It

It isn’t just shopping sites that are tracking us. Media companies sell information about which articles we read online. Charities sell information about the causes we seem interested in. Even government sites might share information about visitors.

Example: A man who registered to visit the Grand Canyon on the National Park Service site was immediately deluges with advertisements from companies selling hiking gear.

Much of this information is recorded, analyzed and shared with anyone will to pay for it, all without our consent. If it falls into the wrong hands, such data potentially could be used for ID theft. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s likely to be used to determine whether we are approved for loans and insurance and to target us with solicitations designed to take advantage of our opinions and weaknesses.

Examples: If we visit the site of a political organization or charity, disreputable companies that want our business might portray themselves as sympathetic to this cause in the online ads we see, even if they are not. If you buy a book from an Internet merchant about overcoming gambling addiction, you might receive a flood of ads from poker Web sites.

The sharing of our private data also could cause us embarrassment if a friend or family member who uses our computer sees that we receive an unusually large number of ads for dating sites, debt-reduction services or treatments for potentially embarrassing health conditions.

What To Do

There are many ways to make your online activities more private. Some are complex, expensive or inconvenient – but there are some simple, free online privacy options that must Internet users find worth the trouble…

1. Make an intermediate stop at Yahoo.com. Generally, each Web site we visit knows which site we were visiting before we dropped in and which site we head to when we leave. Unfortunately, a disreputable site could use the information for nefarious purposes. What we can do to help prevent this is visit a safe, innocuous site such as Yahoo.com both before and after we visit any site that we would prefer to keep private, such as the site of a financial company with which we do business. The fact that we visit Yahoo.com tells others almost nothing about us.

2. Use an ad-tracker tracker. These programs don’t stop the online spies, but they do warn us when we are being watched by the, so you can make an informed decision regarding whether you want to visit certain sites.

Example: TrackerScan is available for free at PrivacyChoice.org/trackerscan.

3. Opt out of ad tracing. Many on-line advertisers and companies that sell data to online advertisers allow Internet users to opt out of Internet tracing by signing up with opt-out services. Examples: Opt-out services include AboutAds.info...PrivacyChoice.org...and NetworkAdvertising.org.

Also, several Web browsers, including Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, are beginning to offer users ways to permanently opt out of ad tracing. However, less ethical advertisers do not participate in these opt-out programs.

4. Periodically clear your cookie cache. Cookies are computer files stored by Web sites on our computers that remind the sites who we are when we return or that track our movements around the Internet. As a result, marketers may know more about us than we want to share. We can delete most of these cookies from our computers in a few simple steps – but be aware that doing so will cause some sites to lose information that we want them to have. We might have to retype passwords, mailing addresses, user profiles and other information the next time we visit. Examples of how to clear your cookies…*

In Internet Explorer 8, select “Internet Options” from the “Tools” menu, select the “General” tab, then click “Delete.” Next, select “Cookies,” then click “Delete” again.

In Mozilla Firefox, select “Options” from the “Tools” menu, click “Privacy,” then “Show Cookies,” followed by “Remove All Cookies.”

5. Adjust your browser settings for greater privacy. In addition to deleting the cookies that already are on our computers, we can instruct our browsers to permit fewer cookies in the future.

Most browsers also have a “Private Browsing” option (Internet Explorer calls it “InPrivate Browsing”) for when we want our browsing to be especially private.

6. Avoid sites that do a poor job protecting user privacy. Don’t use a site if its “Privacy Policy” or “Privacy Terms” states that information about you can be shared with third parties. Avoid a site if a security-rating program, such as MacAfee’s Site Advisor, warns you that the site could expose your computer to malicious software, which could put your personal information at high risk. For a free version of MacAfee’s SiteAdvisor, go to SiteAdvisor.com.