Being tracked on the Internet, and defending against it
You are being watched
The Internet is undeniably awesome, and an indispensable part of life for those that happen to be intertwined with its many facets.
The Internet is also a hotbed for tracking and being tracked. Your online identity has become part of your being; you open Facebook and it's you.
It's your profile, and you own and take pride in it. In reality, though, you own none of it. And every action you take on the Internet is being tracked.
Visit any website and a slew of your data is sent out to numerous unknown providers. Providers you have never heard of, don't care about, and don't really want to care about.
Nonetheless, every time you visit a website, your data is shared. Every time you see a Google, Facebook, Instagram, or any other such icon on any website, you are being tracked.
Why you are being tracked is not always clear. You use Facebook and get on with your life; what do you care what they do with the data you gave them? You have nothing to hide, right?
Privacy is a whole different beast
Say that you owned a house with some nice large windows, as houses usually have. You put up curtains to prevent eavesdroppers from peering into your private life; this is your home after all.
Nobody can now look into your house – your doors are secured, your windows are covered, and you're happily getting on with life.
One afternoon you decide to invite a friend over to your house, and the friend asks if they may bring their own friend along. That's fine, you enjoy other peoples' company.
Your friend arrives with their friend, and they enter your house. You sit down and start chatting, except your friend's friend is staring at everything you own.
They ask to go to the bathroom, and on the way there they look into your bedroom, open your cupboards, and go through your private stuff.
Naturally, you would be outraged – this person you don't know is violating your privacy! Get away from my stuff; that's mine!
Worse, though, they're sending pictures of your stuff to their friends, and their friends send it on to theirs, and so on.
This is your home
Well, this is what online trackers do. Your web browser is your home; Facebook is your home, but wherever you go, your friend's friend is going through your stuff.
The saying goes that when something is free, you are the product. This rings true online; they need to make money somehow, and the majority of websites have adverts to sustain themselves.
The adverts themselves are not the enemy; they are rightfully wanting to make money from their hard work and effort. The way those adverts are delivered is rather shady, though.
Online advertising is big business. When I say big business, I really, really mean it; Google would not exist without advertising. Facebook would not exist without advertising.
But why, then, is advertising so lucrative that it can keep multi-billion-dollar companies alive and thriving?
It's all about you; all about your data, and what they can do with it to sell things to you. Your data is very, very valuable to those that want it.
Diving into Facebook
That pretty yellow dress you liked on Facebook last week just let Facebook know you like yellow dresses.
They don't just know that you like yellow dresses; you are now part of a database of people that like yellow dresses, or like anything else for that matter.
Facebook knows your name, age, location, birthday, e-mail address, and phone number.
They know your friends, your friends' friends, and even their friends.
They know all of those peoples' name, age, location, birthday, e-mail address, and phone numbers. All of it, all the time, and you can never take it back.
Facebook's got it now, and it's got you. Your phone has a GPS built-in, and the Facebook app uses it to track you to exactly where you are right now.
Okay, so Facebook knows a lot about you; fine. Why does that matter? You have nothing to hide, right? Perhaps you don't, and perhaps you don't care at all.
Facebook is an advertising platform
When an advertiser wants to sell a new pretty yellow dress they've created, they go to Facebook and set their advert up just right; they set it to only target 18-to-24 year-olds that like yellow dresses and have friends that like fashion.
Facebook has all of this data on you and sells it to advertisers wanting to target you.
It's so much easier to sell things to people that already like what you're selling, and Facebook knows exactly what you like, down to a tee.
Oh, by the way, it also knows what you say to your friends when you use instant messaging.
They read those messages and use them to figure out what else you like, where you are going, and what you'll be doing there.
Anything and everything you send to Facebook they use to sell you stuff, and to let other people sell you stuff; that's how Facebook makes its money.
How much money? Just over 9 billion dollars in the last three months alone. Yep, your data is valuable indeed.
Facebook is not unique
That's just Facebook, though. Every website you visit does just that, though not so well and not so thoroughly.
There are very many advertising platforms that websites use, and each of those platforms target you to figure out exactly what you did when you saw that article, whether or not you clicked on it, and what you did afterwards.
Then, they use the data they gather from millions and millions of people to improve their methods of selling stuff to you, much in the way Facebook does.
Game, set, and match; you're tracked, always tracked, and it is very difficult to prevent them from tracking you in the first place.
Tracking is part of the Internet, and it's here for good.
Who's tracking me?
To see exactly how much you are tracked online, the Lightbeam extension made by Mozilla allows you to view a graph of everything that happens when you visit a website.
I recommend you take it for a spin to understand just how much you are being tracked; https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/lightbeam/.
Defending against online tracking
The first-line defense is locking your web browser down to make it harder for websites to track you in the first place.
Fortunately, there are many smart minds that have put a lot of work into doing just this, and you can make use of it free-of-charge.
Web browsers today allow you to install extensions or add-ons that add extra features to the web browser.
These extensions are excellent at protecting your online privacy;
- An ad blocker
- uBlock Origin – block pesky online adverts
- A tracking blocker
- Disconnect – prevent online tracking
- Privacy Badger – further prevent online tracking
- Make sure your traffic is encrypted
- HTTPS Everywhere – ensure secure communications
- A script blocker
Installing these add-ons on your web browser will tremendously help you keep your online privacy, and keep those that want your data out.
They do take some getting used to, however, but in the end it is worth it, and you will learn a whole lot about who tracks you online!