Many of us are aware that we’re being tracked around the Internet by a multitude of advertising companies. They track us through the ads on web pages. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to think of them as spies trying to gather as much information about our lives as they possibly can.
In the last couple of columns, I’ve briefly mentioned how online ads are not just intrusive but can be invasive as well. These invasive ads are third-party trackers that collect information which is sent back to the advertiser’s database.
A third-party tracker won’t stop tracking you on the site where you first picked it up. It will follow you around the web, to learn about all the other sites you visit and what you do on them. In some cases, a third-party tracker can also record your keystrokes, so it knows exactly what you are typing. This could be an email, search phrases, messages – in short anything you type in your browser.
The main concerns here are that you were neither asked for your consent to be tracked, nor for a detailed profile to be built around you, that could then be sold to third parties, either for marketing or other more nefarious purposes.
You might think that it doesn’t matter if a company knows which websites you visit and uses that information to target you with tailored advertising. But the truth is that they can learn much more. The danger is that, before you know it, the advertisers will know almost everything there is to know about you.
If you use a social networking site, then they can learn your real name, who your friends are, as well as your profile information.
If you use online banking, then they know which bank(s) you use.
If you have a medical condition, that you do not want to publicly disclose, or a sensitive family issue, then they could learn about it by following the sites you visit.
If you regularly browse the web on your mobile, then they can geo-locate your browsing sessions and use this data to guess where you work, live, shop and socialise.
The longer a third-party tracker follows you around, the more information it gathers. All this information doesn’t exist in isolation and is frequently cross-referenced with other databases. For example, your browsing information could be linked with medical and financial databases to sell you, for instance, plastic surgery procedures from certain organisations that the advertiser knows you will be able to afford.
Hopefully, by this point, you’re wondering how you can better protect your privacy online.
Using an ad blocker, as we’ve discussed previously, is only one way to prevent these trackers from following you around. That won’t, however, flush out the older trackers in your browser.
To start with a clean slate, you will need to clear your browser’s cache and change your settings to prevent anything but the most benign tracking, and a quick Internet search will show you exactly how to do this.