Online tracking is something that I honestly flip back and forth about whether or not it is needed or even useful. A recent article from ZoneAlarm addresses the issue and provided a linkable graphic (see below) that I found interesting and helpful. My take on the matter, at least today, is that tracking basically makes my Internet time more productive. Maybe this is because I generally to the same tasks each time I am online and find it nice to just click my way through those things faster. Maybe its also because I do not do things online that I would find embarrassing if exposed to the public. Regardless, I am not so sure I like the more sordid tracking possibilities such as the creation of a profile that could contain items that should remain private. For instance, is it really necessary to track my queries and visits to medical sites about different questions? I may be looking up something because of a conversation with another person and just want to know more about a condition that I do not even have. Is this data added to a medical profile about me to be used, as indicated by the ZoneAlarm article, to potentially deny medical insurance? On the other hand, Amazon tracks my purchases and makes it easier to find related materials or items that I may very well want to know about. A good book by one author leads me to another that I will enjoy. This is a feature that I do like, so track away Amazon, there is a great deal of products on the site that I do not have time to wade through on my own. This sort of tracking is helpful for me to make better use of my time.
ZoneAlarm Tracking Graphic
One item of interest is the tracking that occurs through the site use of social sharing buttons. Yes, I have them on my sites because they are often wanted by visitors to the sites. I use them as well to share out information that I find interesting. It is not real obvious in general browser usage what connections are being made as various sites and pages are accessed. This is probably why people tend to chaff a bit when they realize just how much tracking is happening. There are also many people who do not care about the issue one way or another. I am fine with it but only to a point although I am not sure that I can define what that point may be depending on the day.
There is a Chrome plugin that provides the end user with much information and data regarding the sites that are tracking a browser session. Collusion for Chrome graphs your activity in an interesting way. The plug-in is documented well so I will not include the details here. The image to the right is a screen shot of my recent web browser activity. As you can see there is a whole lot of tracking going on every time I go on line.
The main trackers are Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook. Even if I do not log in on my social sites, these sites are notified that a connection to a site was made from my IP address. Information about my operating system, browser, and other data is sent and stored by these sites. Give it a try to see what is going on when you are online. There is an option to block or unblock known trackers as you see fit.
What options does the end user have to avoid being tracked? Staying off the grid is not really the answer because you are in many different computers and people you know can tag or reference you at any time. Sure, you can delete all your accounts and just not use the Internet if you want, but it is more sensible to closely control the sort of information you place online, although even this will not stop someone from obtaining data about you. I worked as a private investigator for a number of years. Even the smallest piece of information, however seemingly insignificant at first, was useful when building a target profile. What made things harder was when I was on the trail of someone who generally did not make public personal details about themselves. The other complication was when the target spread a great deal of misinformation which consumed a huge amount of my time, because all of the data had to be sifted and sorted.
So for the general user I suggest the following considerations.
- Lock down your social site profiles
- Regardless of your perspective about what constitutes a public or private tidbit, be extremely cautious about what you post online
- Create and add misinformation – and lots of it, to various spoof accounts to throw off the data tracking.
- Use The Onion Router (TOR) for your general surfing time. There is a live boot CD called TAILS that you can use to cloak your activity better. I have written on its use elsewhere to include its benefits and dangers, and recommend it for a number of reasons that I will not delve into here.
- Use the Collusion plug in and block tracking sites.
- Use the AdBlock plugin.
- Use the NoScript plugin.
- Turn off Java and Java script.
Online tracking is here to stay. I do not see that it will be outlawed in any real sense because the data collected also contains what is necessary to keep the Internet running. With the move to IPv6 it will be even easier to identify end users because each device will have a unique IP address. It will become more and more difficult to cloak your activity. For now, be careful with your content, be proactive in fighting for Internet privacy, use the precautions listed above, and just get on with your day.