In our modern era of personalized ads and online user tracking, I don't blame you if you're concerned about the digital tracks you are leaving behind whenever you are online.
Big data is big business nowadays, and your browsing and search habits get collected, cataloged, analyzed and fed through algorithms that are designed to monetize your every move.
But sometimes, all this stalking and creeping and tracking and snooping can feel a little bit too much. It certainly feels like a blatant invasion of privacy.
And here's the kicker. Although online tracking is mostly used for targeted advertising, Facebook's Cambridge Analytica fiasco reminded us that our personal data can be used for more than simply influencing our buying decisions. Our online profiles can also be used for manipulating group behavior, too.
Thankfully, there are a number of tools out there that can help you boost your online privacy. From tweaking your browser settings to opting out of ad tracking altogether, here are various ways you can fight back.
Change your browser cookie settings
Advertisers record and store your online habits on your computer as a small file called a cookie. You can remove these yourself, but they'll just keep coming back.
For a clean slate, you can clear all your browsing data, history, cache and cookies from your web browsers. With this method, you can disable or limit tracking on your gadget or even services like Facebook. Click here for detailed instructions on how to do this.
Next, make sure you delete all third-party advertising cookies too. Click here for more tips on how to clear out these types of cookies.
Next, test your browser with an online security and privacy checker like Panopticlick. Developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this site collects information about the browser you're using and will tell you your risk level.
Incognito or private mode
Every major web browser - Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera - has private, or incognito, browsing.
Turning this feature on means your browser will ignore cookies - including ad-tracking cookies - and it won't record your browsing history. As far as cookies are concerned, it's a clean slate and it's almost like you weren't even online during the session.
When your browser is in private browsing mode, it will show a special icon. If you don't see the mask in Firefox, the spy in Chrome or the "InPrivate" in IE and Edge, then you aren't in incognito or private mode.
Tip in a tip: Instead of using a browser's private mode, you can try an alternative browser like the Tor Browser. This easy-to-use web browser will automatically encrypt and hide your traffic from prying eyes.
Private browsing will keep your browsing safe from local snoopers and hide your browsing history. Someone who jumps on your computer won't see where you've been. This is great when you want to hide your tracks when shopping for a gift for a family member, for example.
However, incognito modes still won't hide your activity from your ISP, from a firewall (like the one in your office) or from routers with monitoring tools enabled. It also won't stop advanced tracking techniques like canvas fingerprinting and supercookies.
Opt out of ads
With all the behind-the-scenes tracking going around, the number of companies that use algorithms to track your behavior and send you targeted ads is disturbing when you think about it.
Thankfully, there's a way for you to opt-out of interest based, or "behavioral," ads. Or, at least most of them.
The Digital Advertising Alliance has a consumer choice page that lets you see which of its participating partners is currently using customized ads on your computer.
When you first visit the website, a scan will begin. When the scan is complete, you'll be shown a list of these partners.
From there, you can learn more about the practices these companies use for interest-based ads, and opt-out using "opt-out cookies" that are stored in your browser with your preferences.
It's important to note that doing this won't remove all of the ads that you see online. Advertisers just won't be able to serve you targeted ads.
Use third-party anti-tracking browser extensions
Another convenient option to stop and monitor tracking is installing browser extensions. There's a variety of them you can try.
Privacy Badger is a browser add-on or extension for Chrome, Firefox and Opera that will monitor webpages for spying ads and trackers that can be recording your every move. It claims to detect 184 tracking domains with tracking activity adjustable with filter sliders within its settings.
Another option is Ghostery, an ad tracking blocker that supports all major browsers - Opera, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer. It's a pretty straightforward blocker that can stop all sorts of categorized trackers such as advertising, analytics and social media tracking.
Disconnect will likewise identify advertising, analytics, social media and content tracking requests. According to the company, they try and take the middle ground between privacy protection and respect for analytics tracking that is necessary for websites to survive. If done tastefully, this is certainly a good approach.
Check your online account settings
Sometimes it feels like the tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook know you personally. It's not surprising, because they do!
Each time you use their products and services, they have algorithms that track what you like, watch and click on. Data is the name of the game, and they use this information to target ads or relevant posts to users on behalf of advertisers.
Thankfully, these companies and most advertising firms give you tools to opt out of personalized ad tracking.
Google and Microsoft, for example, have account dashboards for privacy controls and for checking what it knows about you. Note: Google actually revamped their ad settings to make it easier for you to understand and limit ad tracking.
Facebook likewise has options for turning off behavioral tracking to keep it from following you around the web. The company is also currently auditing its third-party apps and they're now easier to view and control.
Use a private browser on your phone too
For those times when web anonymity is your primary priority, it doesn't stop even when you're on the go. You can get comparable anti-web tracking tools on your smartphone, too.
One such app is Mozilla's free Firefox Focus app. This anonymous mobile web browser blocks all advertising, analytics and social trackers by default. It also erases all passwords and browsing history after each session.
If you don't want a mobile browser that's associated with the big data brokers, you can try the third-party app Dolphin browser. Aside from a Private Mode, this browser has great features that specifically enhances the mobile browsing experience.
If you're on a Samsung smartphone, you can also use the company's very own Samsung Internet app. This browser has a built-in ad tracking blocker that will keep other sites from tracking your online activity.
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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).
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.
There you have it, if you're creeped out by all the background tracking that's going on whenever you go online, these are the ways you can minimize it.
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