You've most probably shopped for an item online and then been served up ads for every possible variation of that item for days or weeks thereafter. Obviously, the websites you visit collect the data and use it to target you with advertising.
So what information is being collected, and who is actually collecting it?
Are there reasons other than ad-targeting for tracking your activities?
You will be shocked to find out what information is available about you and how it could potentially be used. In this article, I've discussed some steps you can take to minimize your online profile.
If you submit an online form, whatever you type into it is probably stored by the site. This could include your contact information and credit or debit card data.
In addition, websites will typically collect information including your device IP address, your location (revealed by your IP address), what browser you use, the type of device you are using to access the site, how much time you stay on a page, and what you do while you're there, including what items you view or buy.
Perhaps much of this data is being collected only to ensure that the pages display properly on your device or to provide you with the best possible experience when using the site.
First-party tracking gathers information to be used by the site you are visiting, as outlined above. If, however, the site you visit facilitates the dropping of a third-party tracking cookie onto your device, that third-party tracker can, without your knowledge, gather information about your other online activities as well. This is because the cookie will allow its owner continued access to your browsing data from now on.
Your device IP address is your online identity. What you do using that IP address allows multiple trackers to attribute to you all the activity and data they gather. This is called fingerprinting.
The resulting profile could include your likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, whether you have children, your religious beliefs, any problems you may be having, what you shop for, and much more, depending on the extent of your online activities.
The data collected in the fingerprinting process is the type of information malicious entities use to build more extensive profiles, often including family member identification, your marital status, whether you own your home, where you live, current and previous home addresses, job histories, whether you've been arrested, and even the names of your neighbors.
This is the type of data that can be leveraged by cybercriminals to commit identity theft and other crimes. Therefore, taking steps to minimize your online profile is recommended.
There are several tools you can use to block trackers. Perhaps one of the simplest changes you can make is to install and use a private browser. The Brave private browser, downloadable at brave.com/download/, is available for computers running 64 and 32-bit Windows operating systems, macOS, and Linux. Mobile versions are available as well via Google Play and the App Store.
For example, Brave is free and is configured by default to block trackers and ads. Using encryption, Brave also secures connections to unsecured sites. Tor is another free browser option, but it is slower than Brave and is blocked in some geographical areas; thus, not all sites are accessible when using it.
If you don't want to change to a different browser, consider using a browser extension to block tracking. These are available for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, iOS, Explorer, and Android browsers.
Another option would be to install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) application. A VPN not only secures all of your online traffic using an encrypted tunnel, but it also routes your traffic through a VPN server where your device IP address is replaced by that of the server. Remember that your device's IP is its online identification. Replacing it conceals its true identity.
Installing a VPN is always a good idea because of the added security through encryption, but you should research and read reviews before selecting one. There are free VPN apps, but some are slower because of limited support infrastructure (not enough servers to handle the traffic). Others have been known to actually collect and sell their subscribers' data - just what you were trying to prevent.
Once you've implemented your new privacy tools, the next step is to remove as much of your existing online profile data as possible. Fox News, USA Today, Consumer Reports, and others have published articles with step-by-step instructions for deleting your information from people's search sites and opting out of allowing them to continue collecting data about you in the future. Just search how to remove your information from these sites and select a how-to article published by a site you trust.
Not every website tracks your activities or allows the installation of third-party cookies. Some limit their data collection to that which the site needs to provide you with the best service.
However, many facilitate creating detailed online profiles of those who visit by sharing the data they collect and allowing third-party cookies to be dropped onto their customers' devices. This practice is widespread.
For this reason, new data privacy laws are being discussed or drafted in several countries worldwide. However, considering the length of time required for legislation to be enacted and the abundance of cybercriminals out there who, by definition, will not abide by the law, the best option would be to take it upon yourself to protect your data by minimizing your online profile.