Think about every website you've ever visited. Now imagine if that information became available online, for anyone to see.
The thought of having every movement tracked is actually pretty creepy. Unfortunately, it turns out that is more common than you would think.
How your online activity could be exposed
A pair of security researchers recently warned how easily supposed anonymous browsing histories can be exposed. Svea Eckert and Andreas Dewes revealed the shocking news at this year's Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas.
What's happening is, companies sell bulk browsing data to advertisers so they can come up with targeted ads. This information is sent anonymously, meaning the ad company doesn't know the user's actual name.
However, the researchers revealed just how easy it is to match up those anonymous accounts with the real account holders. Before the information is sent to advertisers, it's supposed to be scrubbed of all identifying information. That's not always happening.
The pair were able to connect a list of sites and links visited by the anonymous users to an identifier. Dewes said, "With only a few domains you can quickly drill down into the data to just a few users." They used public information like links people shared through Twitter or YouTube videos that they passed along on social media sites like Facebook.
Dewes also said, "The public information available about users is growing so it's getting easier to find the information to do the de-anonymization. It's very, very difficult to de-anonymize it even if you have the intention to do so."
Eckert said, "This could be so creepy to abuse. You could have an address book and just look up people by their names and see everything they did. After the research project, we deleted the data because we did not want to have it close to our hands anymore. We were scared that we would be hacked."
Dewes and Eckert believe that selling bulk user data, even if it's supposedly anonymous, is too big of a security risk. They would like governments to get involved and crack down on regulating the process to try and make it more secure.
That's most likely not going to happen. You need to take measures into your own hands.
How to protect your online privacy
If you're worried about privacy, here are a few suggestions that can help:
Browse privately using VPNs
If you truly want to keep your personal information private, your best option is to encrypt your connection with a virtual private network (VPN). In the business world, VPNs let employees working remotely create an encrypted connection with the company network so they can work safely.
Windows and Macs both have VPN features built in just for this purpose. However, for the average home user or traveler, these aren't very helpful because you need something to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.
A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers and you use that server to browse the internet. The connection is encrypted through the server, so the VPN can't see your traffic either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result. Click here to learn more about using a VPN.
Use search engines that don't track you
Believe it, or not, Google isn't the only search engine out there. You can skip Bing and Yahoo, too. If you really want to browse privately, use search engines like Yippy, Duckduckgo or Ixquick. Click here to learn more about these tools that don't track you like Google.
Stop sites from tracking you
If Google is still your preferred search engine, then you'll need to limit what data can be tracked in each of your web browsers. For a step-by-step guide to this process, click here to learn how to disable tracking on Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge.