Internet Privacy in a Sea of Web Cookies

Worried about Internet privacy, web monitoring, flash cookies and who’s watching your website activity? Need better privacy protection in your life? Read on.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published the first article in a series called “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” a comprehensive piece describing how ad networks and Internet tracking companies are collecting your personal Web surfing data. In the biz, it’s called “behavioral profiling,” a euphemism for discovering consumer information for advertisers.

The Journal commissioned an Internet expert to study the nation’s top 50 websites for tracking cookies and “beacons” that reveal consumer Web activity.

While cookies, tiny bits of software identifying you and your computer, are useful for frequently visited sites, when you open your browser a lot more action takes place under the hood. For example, the nation’s top 50 websites on average install 64 types of tracking tools for each visitor. A dozen websites put more than a 100 of the little buggers on your hard disk.

What’s amazing to both Web surfers and website owners–like Dictionary.com, the worst offender–is lack of awareness about what’s happening.

Why should you care? The new tools scan your activity in real time, then attempt to discover your location, income, shopping interests and even medical condition.

Advertisers used to purchase ads on web pages they thought matched reader interest in their products and services. Now tracking Internet users’ behaviors across the Web is of greater interest. As advertisers learn more about you, they can better target their ads to match your interests.

They’re over 100 “middlemen”–data brokers and ad networks–vying to know your darkest secrets. Feeling a bit overweight? Don’t be surprised if you start seeing online ads for products and services that help you shed pounds.

Within a few seconds on eBay, a company called BlueKai starts auctioning off your searches for as little as a tenth of a cent. The information, of course, is all “anonymous.” But as tracking firms become more sophisticated, information collected on you becomes more accurate. (By the way, BlueKai allows consumers to opt-out from their tracking tools. Visit the site for more info.)

“Flash cookies” or “beacons” are the most nefarious tracking tools as they allow companies to follow every click of your mouse during web sessions. As I mentioned above, Dictionary.com was the worst offender, unknowingly allowing 41 web bits on their site. Comcast.net installed 55.

Fortunately, there’s something you can do about the data critters floating on your computer’s hard disk. The Journal suggested the steps below but I reversed the order and added one additional step:

Visit networkadvertising.org, an industry groups of marketers, and opt out of 50 ad networks

Install Trackerscan, a Firefox plug-in from Privacy Choice that identifies who’s tracking you. Also opt-out from ad tracking on its website

Install the Firefox “Better Privacy” plug-in to handle flash cookies

Install Ghostery, if you use Internet Explorer, Firefox or Google Chrome. This nifty plug-in controls those beacons that follow you around the Web like ants.

Check and delete cookies. This is fairly easy but the steps differ slightly from browser to browser. (Click on your browser’s help button for instructions.) Removing all cookies, however, means you’ll need to re-enter your user name and passwords on your favorite sites. So you might want to remove cookies with names you don’t recognize.

Adjust your browser settings. Un- checking “third party cookies” will rid you of cookies from sites you don’t regularly visit, but you may have to re-enter information when you return to those sites. (Safari ditches third party cookies automatically.)

Turn on private browsing. (Chrome = Incognito; IE8 = InPrivate Browsing). Think twice about doing this. Private browsing may increase your Web privacy but it deletes all your cookies when closing your browser. Kind of a pain especially if you use a lot of Google tools.

Monitor flash cookies. To fix this little bugger, go to the Adobe flash player web page and follow instructions. Heavy video fans may want to skip this step.

Change your Google history settings. The WSJ didn’t mention doing this. But Google makes money off of ads–including mobile phone ads. So if you’re concerned about Google following your Web behavior, clean out your browsing history. This automatically turns off browser history tracking. Later you can always turn history tracking on again.

You’re probably thinking “what a pain”–and you’re right. But if you’re worried about your Internet privacy, you’ll make the changes.

A parting thought: remember that every time you tweet on Twitter, write on a Facebook wall or leave your footprint on another social media site, you’re sharing private information. So watch what you write. It’s not just the ad folks and tracking companies watching. It could be your boss or your ex.

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