Find Out How Websites Are Tracking You and How You Can Hide Your Info

Information is gold: businesses make billions by capturing personal data about you and targeting you with advertising. This data gathering occurs both online and in supermarkets and other brick-and-mortar stores. Although the information can seem unimportant, the marketers make clever deductions about your life that can be shockingly personally. Today, targeted advertising may seem like an unavoidable part of modern life, but you can protect your privacy with a few commonsense strategies.

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In 2012 the New York Times published an insightful look into the power of marketing and data gathering. As described in the article, Target sent coupons for baby-related items to a teenage girl in Minnesota. This angered her father who didn’t know a baby was on the way. How did Target know? She had recently bought lotion, cotton balls and mineral supplements. Target’s computers processed this information, flagged it as a sign of pregnancy and put her on the mailing list for infant needs. By processing vast amounts of data and looking for patterns, the giant retailer’s marketing department understood the significance of mundane, seemingly unrelated items.

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If this bothers you, you’re in good company; most people assume the things they buy are their own personal, private business. Most also think major life events, such as getting married, having children, and buying a home are also their own business. However, in the U.S., with its relatively weak personal privacy laws, it’s perfectly legal for companies to comb through your buying history, guess what’s happening in your life, and target you with advertising.

Websites play a key role in the data-gathering business. Most sites employ “cookies” – small files stored on your computer – to keep track of customer information. Since the invention of web cookies in the 90s, their use has expanded greatly. For example, when you register for an online magazine, the site creates a cookie that stores information about you, such as your name and the date you last visited. An online clothing store might then read your cookies and notice you read the magazine; based on this information, the store makes educated guesses about clothes you like and recommends them in hopes of making a sale. Although most web browsers now let you disable cookies, the retailers have created alternate ways of tracking your information.

You might give up personal information willingly when presented with an enticing offer. A Facebook account, for example, seems like you get something for nothing; they don’t charge for signing up. However, when you post a picture of your dog to Facebook, they gather information from it and use it for ads on the site. For example, they know you have a dog, so you might see ads for vet services and dog food. Your rants on issues of the day may lead to Facebook recommending posts from political magazines and grass-roots movements. Facebook also pays attention to your “likes” and comments on the posts of your friends. It all feeds into a vast ad-serving system. Facebook receives no membership fees; it makes money with ads.

Many major grocery stores offer regular shoppers a loyalty card which gives discounts on special sale items. Although it seems like you’re getting a deal, it’s the store that’s profiting; by analyzing all purchases made with your card number, their management gains valuable insights on what you might buy next.

To help protect your privacy, first be aware of what you’re getting into when you sign up for websites. Don’t give away any information not related to the purpose of the site, such as age, ethnicity, marital status or other personal data. Unless you have a good reason, don’t post personal information on social media. Install privacy protection software as noted below and use it. Have a tech-savvy friend disable cookies on your web browser, and have him or her turn the “Do Not Track” feature on. When you register appliances and other consumer items for warranty, leave personal information, hobbies, and interests blank. Before you sign up for any internet-based service, learn about the company’s privacy policies and avoid any that seem unclear.

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In addition to keeping good online habits to protect your privacy, you can add privacy software to your browser. The software detects cookies and other Internet tricks used to track your online life and deletes or blocks them. Among these are the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Privacy Badger and Ghostery. More on that can be found in this article.

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