Earlier this month, JR Smith and Siobhan MacDermott blogged about the availability of their new book, Wide Open Privacy: Strategies for the Digital Life (IT-Harvest).
One of the big topics in the book is the issue of online tracking and behavioral advertising. While many argue such practices infringe upon consumer privacy, JR and Siobhan raise a good point: the more we know about what’s going on behind the scenes and how we can control it, the more we can actually enjoy the benefit of websites that want to know us a little better.
JR voiced AVG’s stand on the online tracking issue over the summer. It’s not the fact that we’re being tracked, but the fact that we have zero control in the matter. How we’re tracked and what happens to our data should all be a matter of choice. It should be up to us.
So how do we regain the power of choice?
All the latest versions of the major browsers today include do-not-track user preference controls, but these merely express your wishes. Many third-party sites will honor your request, but many don’t. And they only let you decide whether you want to block online tracking or not. AVG offers a do-not-track feature in its AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. AVG takes it a step further by allowing you to customize your blocking preferences at a granular level.
One company to be aware of is BlueCava. Unlike cookies, which can be blocked or removed, BlueCava provides tracking technology that allows sites to permanently identify whatever device you’re using to connect to the web. The good news is, you can opt-out by going to http://www.bluecava.com/preferences, but you have to connect using each device you want to remove from their system.
But that requires time and mass awareness. In the meantime, it’s important to remember that while it may be uncomfortable to have e-commerce providers tracking and following you around on the web, it can be downright dangerous if you’re being followed by shady sites that are tracking you for purposes other than matching you with the right ad, product or experience. That’s why you only want to deal with big, brand-named merchants unless you’re willing to put a little time into researching lesser known sites to ensure they’re legitimate businesses.
It’s important to remember that websites aren’t the only ones who might be tracking you. A roommate or co-worker could check your computer and find that you’ve been looking at new apartments or jobs. So, it’s important to either clear your browsing history in order to protect your privacy or turn on your browser’s “private” mode to disable any record of the browsing session—including cookies, temporary files, history and other data.
Beyond that it’s a matter of common sense. Don’t use Wi-Fi unless you’re connecting via a known and secure Wi-Fi network. Learn how to recognize and thwart the latest phishing attacks. Stay informed. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself. Wide Open Privacy is a great place to start.