One could imagine Internet users understand they are being tracked by advertisers as soon as they go online: the ad for some recently Googled product suddenly reappears on every Internet page visited. However, a new study shows that the majority of consumers do not realize their private data is being sold to advertising networks and third-party entities in order to provide them with targeted ads.
When people find out they are constantly followed and monitored, many start worrying about their privacy. And while it’s understandable that advertisers need to use technology to reach the people that might be interested in their products, the problem is that consumers are most often not informed about what kind of information is being collected about them.
Moreover, advertisers are using cross-device tracking, which raises additional privacy and security risks. In cross-device tracking, ad companies and publishers try to build a consumer’s profile based on their activity throughout computers, tablets, smartphones, smart watches and various IoT devices. Online and offline factors are often combined: such as browsing history with physical location, retail purchases with watched TV programs, commute to work and vacation travel and so on.
Basically, most Internet users are tracked from the moment they wake up till they go to sleep through the variety of devices and physical locations revealed by their GPS coordinates.
Why hidden online tracking might be dangerous
There are a few issues when one is unknowingly tracked by advertising companies.
First of all, it’s an invasion of Internet user’s privacy – whenever the users have not given their consent. For example, one family member might be browsing “privately” on their smartphone, but the rest of the family might see ads on their home computer related to the other person’s mobile browsing history. Or, worse yet, a woman who has suffered the trauma of miscarriage is often still persecuted by pregnancy ads, following her from once-visited pregnancy sites.
There is also the security issue. The collection of unfathomable amounts of data about people’s interests and habits can fall into the wrong hands. If such data landed in the hands of someone with malintent, the Internet user’s information could then be used to steal their identity, access bank accounts or medical records.
While some advertising companies already offer the ability to opt-out from behavioral targeting, most often Internet users are not given an explanation/disclaimer about how they are being tracked.
How can Internet users avoid being tracked by advertisers
Not surprisingly, when an Internet user learns about the amount of information that advertisers are collecting on their daily activities, they may get scared and wish to protect their privacy. There are a few methods that can be easily implemented by anyone who is using the Internet:
- Ad-blockers. Ad blocking software provides Internet users with a list of third-party trackers, and users can choose to allow some sites to track them or they can choose to block them. For example,AdBlock Pluseffectively blocks banner ads, pop-up ads, and other types of ads. It disables third-party tracking cookies and scripts.
- Deleting cookies.Internet users may be tracked by many different entities: ISPs (Internet Service Providers), ad networks, publishers and other third parties. One of the most common ways to track online behaviour is through cookies – small pieces of code that are downloaded into a user’s browser when they visit a website. When a user visits that website again, this will be recorded through the cookie, and targeted ads can be directed towards that person. Users need to regularly clear their browsing data in order to get rid of all the cookies. Fortunately, websites in the U.S. and Europe, now have to declare that their page is collecting cookies.
- VPNs.A VPN encrypts the data between a user’s device and the VPN server, and is the safest security mechanism to ensure the Internet browsing history remains confidential. NordVPN has a reputation of focusing on privacy, security and having a zero logs policy, and is fast and easy to use. The developers atNordVPNhave launched powerful apps for Mac, Android, iOS and Windows that are also intuitive and good-looking. The apps reroute and encrypt all Internet traffic by hiding a user’s IP address. Once Internet traffic is encrypted and real IP address is hidden, it becomes difficult to track this person. As an added benefit, VPN users can also access geo-blocked content online.
- Browser add-ons. Anti-tracking and anti-cookie extensions are one of the best ways to stay private. For example, Disconnect Private Browsingprotects from tracking and malware. It blocks third party cookies and from tracking by social networks like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Another advisable option is Privacy Badgerby the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Before ad companies figure out a fair way of informing consumers about their intent and giving a choice about which information can be tracked, users who wish to stay private should be proactive and take care of their own online privacy and security.