Are you following me?
You’re being tracked right now. Not by the Predator, or the Terminator, or an egomaniacal game show host, or any of a handful of other villains from Arnold Schwarzenegger films. But you are being tracked nonetheless.
And the worst part is that you have no idea. It’s hidden from you. It’s covert. Real cloak and dagger stuff. But spend any time anywhere, and someone somewhere knows about it.
Video surveillance and security cameras are everywhere: retail stores, ATMs, traffic lights, public spaces, school campuses. Walk around a typical city on a typical day, and your face is captured on video dozens of times. Someone with access and the technical know-how could likely track you from sunrise to sunset, recording your every move and activity.
And we make it even easier for them in the modern world. Most of us carry a virtual tracking system in our pocket, or bag, or hand.
Your smartphone. Yes, they’re convenient, useful, and entertaining. They keep us connected and informed 24/7. We can access the Internet, contact a friend on the other side of the world, send a text message to let our family know we’ll be 15 minutes late for supper. The map and GPS capabilities allow us to find our way in any town or city. And cats. We can watch lots of cat videos.
But your phone is also keeping tabs on you. Don’t believe me? You’d be surprised. If you’re in the Googleverse (using a phone with the Android operating system), check out Google Location History. Your phone has been keeping a detailed record of every place you’ve been, how long you were there, and any photos or videos you took are automatically attached to the record. And by detailed, I mean detailed… right down to the address and name of the business. You can follow your movements on the map. You can turn it off under Activity Settings, but it’s on by default. However long you’ve had your phone is how long it’s been tracking your movements.
And before the Mac fanboys start crowing, Apple does the same thing – only less detailed.
But it gets worse. This doesn’t even consider the multiple instances when you post a selfie, update your whereabouts on Facebook or Foursquare, or send your location to someone via an instant messaging app like WhatsApp. We share private information like that about ourselves all the time without even thinking. You’re being followed by companies, individuals, and programs.
In the real world, it’s bad enough. But online? Your every move is subject to tracking, scrutiny, and analysis. Here’s how… and what you can do to limit it.
1. Your Browser
Whether you’re using Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera, or Internet Explorer (does anyone still use IE?), your browsing history is noted and stored. You can see for yourself under Settings > History. You can see every website you’ve visited, every tab you’ve opened, and every file you’ve ever downloaded.
If you’re logged in with your Google username, it will attach this record to your main account. Google History gives you a complete list of your web and app activity. You can erase individual entries or history for a specified time period, or everything since the beginning of (Google) time. Under Settings, you can disable this feature.
But back to your browser. You can – and should – get in the habit of deleting your browser history frequently. Under settings, look for “Clear Browsing Data” or something similar. No one needs to know how you spend your time online… regardless of whether it involves porn or not. It’s nobody else’s business.
Most browsers offer a private or “Incognito” mode to save you the trouble. Anything you do will not be saved to your history or account activity. But, be aware that this mode does not protect you from other snoopers. Incognito mode does not shield you from being tracked by your service provider or government and police agencies.
2. Your Search History
Every time you use Google, or Bing, or Yahoo! to look something up online, that search is saved to your search engine history. On your computer. On your phone. You can pause it on your phone (under Settings > Privacy), and you can disable it completely in Google History. Using Incognito mode in Chrome will prevent your searches from appearing in your history, as well.
Bing – the only other search engine that really matters – does the same thing. You can disable it at Search History (toggle to “Off” at the top).
Search engines save your history in an effort to offer personalized suggestions, offers, and recommendations, which is great in theory. But it is a privacy concern. If you’re logged into your account (Google, Microsoft, or whatever), they may have your name and address. At a minimum, they have your unique IP address, and that can be used to identify you.
But, to be really safe, you might want to consider using DuckDuckGo instead. This engine does not keep records or history of any sort. With Google or Bing, whatever search term you entered is also shared with whatever website you click on in the results. They know who you are, what you were looking for, and why you ended up on their site. DuckDuckGo shares nothing with the individual websites you visit. Your privacy is protected.
3. Facebook Activity Log
We spend a lot of time on Facebook, and we share a lot of information about ourselves while doing it. On purpose, and by accident. Did you know that Facebook keeps a very detailed list of everything you post, like, share, comment on, and search for while using the platform? They do. You can find it under Settings > Activity Log.
For each entry, check to see who else can see it, and you’ll quickly discover that many of your likes and shares are available to the “Public”. That’s anyone, regardless of whether you’re connected to them. Along the right-hand side of Facebook, at the top, you can follow the activity of your friends, too. Unfortunately, there is no way to opt out of this tracking, so just be aware that it exists. If you have any secret, hidden, or potentially embarrassing associations or likes on Facebook, you might want to think twice before you click the thumbs up. Your likes are not private.
4. Tracking Cookies
Now we get to the big guns. Tracking cookies. Cookies are tiny text files placed on your computer by a website. To be fair, some of them are necessary and make surfing the web faster and easier. When you log into your Facebook account, you don’t have to do it again the next time, because Facebook saved a cookie on your browser. Ditto virtually any website that requires a sign-on. Your preferences for other customizable services (like search engines, for example) are also saved via cookies. It’s a bit invasive, but it does save time and hassle. A tracking cookie, though, keeps a running record of who you are (usually via your unique IP address) and what websites you visit. This information can be collected, analyzed, shared, and even sold to other interested parties.
When you visit Facebook, Facebook installs a cookie. If you visit Amazon, Amazon installs a cookie. But many sites also install third-party cookies, and that’s where it can get dicey. There may be dozens of websites (advertising, statistical, or whatever) tracking your movements online. You can usually turn them off in the major browsers (under Settings > Privacy > Content Settings/Cookies), and limiting or preventing third-party cookies shouldn’t interfere with your browsing experience. You should also erase your cookies frequently under the Browsing/Browser Data section in Settings or History. Just remember that you’ll be required to log in to your regular sites the next time you’re there.
5. Some Stronger Solutions
So, your browser, your preferred search engine, and the websites themselves are all tracking you online. The tips above are a good place to start, but everyone is doing them, and some sites and nefarious individuals are already working on ways around them. But you can go even further in your quest for anonymity.
You can activate the "Do Not Track" setting in most major browsers, but websites aren’t really under any obligation to recognize it. You need to do more and go further if you want to feel warm and cozy online.
Privacy apps like a VPN (virtual private network) can shield and hide ALL of your online activities. Even if someone is watching, there is no way to connect the activity to you. Your IP address is protected. Your activity and information are encrypted. Even your location is hidden. A good VPN comes with a monthly fee, but it’s a good investment if you’re concerned about your privacy and anonymity online. Some good free options include CyberGhost and TunnelBear. Turn it on every time you’re surfing the web.
7. Browser Extensions
An extension is a small program added to your browser for some very specific purpose. A few of them help protect you online, such as Disconnect and Ghostery. These extensions allow you to a) see who is tracking you at any given time (you’ll be surprised by how many… Disconnect presents it visually, and you can immediately see the intricate web of sites and services sharing your information without your knowledge or consent), and b) allows you to block the tracking cookies.
Tor, or The Onion Router, is a free system to protect your anonymity while hanging out in cyberspace. The Tor Network is essentially a free VPN protocol that funnels your browsing activity through various worldwide servers and networks while encrypting the data from prying eyes. No one knows who you are, where you are, or what you’re doing. This is useful if you want to keep hidden from advertisers, other trackers like your Internet service provider and, yes, even your own government.
9. Anonymous Email
When you send an email, whether to your BFF or the complaint department at Apple, your email message comes with all kinds of information attached to it. If you need something a little more anonymous, check out Anonymouse or Hide My Ass. These free services aren’t fancy, but your privacy and details are 100% secure.
See Also: Top Tips for Online Security
Your online business is yours and yours alone. The tips here are not meant to help you break the law or engage in other questionable behavior. Security and privacy are the right of everyone. And, at the moment, your activity is not private. A recent study found that 9 out of 10 of the most popular websites are leaking your details to third parties for a variety of reasons, according to Motherboard. Take a few steps and stop the flow of information. Take back the ‘net.
What’s your favorite service or app for online security? Are you concerned about your privacy? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below!