Two simple things to encourage anonymity on the web

Online privacy has been an issue since the Internet starting becoming mainstream but it's been somewhat at the forefront of tech industry news the past few years, and rightfully so with the revelation of programs like PRISM. Outside of blatant, questionably legal surveillance, a lot of the talk boils down to privacy issues surrounding Facebook and Google, which is understanding. Both offer extremely popular free services that are supported almost entirely by advertising revenue. The fear is that these digital hubs are/might/have/will use the massive amounts of data they're able to compile about us through simply using their services in a less scrupulous way — namely selling it to advertisers. There's a popular adage out there that says if the company isn't selling you a product directly than you are the product.

It's an over-simplification of things I think but not totally inaccurate. Long story short, the idea of treading lightly on the web (And frankly, in life. I moved into a new apartment not too long ago and decided not to bring any furntiure with me. I've since acquired a stool, a floor pillow and a mat that folds away to sleep on. Maybe I'm just going through a phase and trying to embrace minimalism in every facet of my life.) and leaving as little trace as possible is appealing. I'm not going so far as to delete all my accounts on popular services and start exclusively use a Tor browser, but there are a couple things I've done that make me feel slightly better about the whole thing.

Here they are:

Opt-out of interest-based ads on Google

You can go to this page and see the profile Google's built for you using your search history:

https://www.google.com/settings/ads/preferences

I actually don't find that so disturbing as I do kind of interesting. When advertiser's tell Google they want to only show their ads to males in the U.S. between 30-40 with interests in technology this is where they look. I might argue the semantics of claiming Google is "selling" this data to people, but I get it. Even though a lot of us did willfully provide this information when creating Google+ accounts.

Since I use Google 1000x more than Facebook and other online services — and because the information I end up searching for from time-to-time can be a lot more personal or telling about me than anything I'd post on Facebook or Twitter or whatver — I opted-out here.

Install the Ghostery plugin for your browser

Ghostery is a privacy plugin that blocks content from many online tracking services — 1,926 in fact, as of this writing.  These services are used by advertising companies as you travel from site to site to build profiles about you which they can then use to sell to other advertising companies or further target ads for you.

Here's a simple example: ever gone to Amazon.com and searched for shoes? Then have you noticed advertisements for that same pair of shoes showing up on your favorite news site? That's the essence of this kind of tracking at work.

Installing this plugin kind of blew my mind. I have everything set to off by default and have selectively enabled individual services and/or white-listed entire sites as I need. It's amazing to me to find some websites don't work at all when these trackers are disabled. It's also surprising to find some sites are merely using 3 or 4 as I might expect but closer to 10 or 20 (!!!).

Admittedly there's kind of a blurred line here: a very good commenting system like Disqus is considered a tracker. Adobe's webfont service TypeKit is considered a tracker. Following you around the web isn't the core service being offered in those instances but... it's definitely an aspect of what's going on, even if indirectly.

If you're considering doing either of these things I'd suggest going with the Ghostery plugin. Truthfully it's the long-tail of advertisers and scummy tracking companies out there that concern me more than Google & Facebook. At least with those two you can generally find some kind of an opt-out page.

 

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