As you surf through the Internet, browsing stores, chatting with friends, reserving a few books at the library and paying your bills, followers lurk in the digital shadows behind you.
When you think about who is watching you online, you may picture your creepy neighbor, your ex-boyfriend or the cute guy from work who has a crush on you, but in reality, the lurker in the shadows isn’t any of those people. Rather, you are being tracked by anonymous people who want to build a detailed profile about you and your habits. If you’re reading this as a business in 2017, don’t forget that you must become Cyber Essentials certified by May 2018.
Your online profile is stocked with tidbits about the items you buy, the sites you visit and the terms you search. Together, these items allow companies to understand your most personal information. The point of collecting all this data, according to NBC News, is so that companies can compile an accurate marketing plan just for you. The behavioral tracking that allows retailers to accurately market to you may be relatively harmless, but the large volume information being collected on you can easily be abused.
Potential for Abuse
According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, behavioral tracking software can attach to your computer when visiting certain websites. Unlike malware or adware, this software is not detectable nor will it pose a risk to your computer. The software (e.g., cookies) tracks everything a consumer does on a certain page including time spent on the page, which links were clicked and even where the mouse was moved.
When web users jump onto one of the nation’s top 50 websites, they may have an average of roughly 64 pieces of tracking technology installed on to their computer by that site. The information that is collected and eventually sold includes social security numbers, bank account numbers, religious beliefs, health and sexual orientation.
Currently, there is very little oversight to curtail what companies may do with this information. According to the Wall Street Journal, sites like Staples have been caught changing the prices on items based on the ZIP code affiliated with each shopper’s IP address. Consumers from affluent ZIP codes were charged more for the same product than consumers from less affluent ZIP codes.
Tools and Protection
Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to protect yourself from behavioral tracking. Several consumer advocate organizations like the Consumer Federation of America are working to help protect consumers, and you can get information from them on tracking bans like the Do Not Track Law which was recently signed into law in California. In addition to getting political, there are special apps and services that you can buy to protect yourself.
If you use the Firefox browser, add Lightbeam. This app allows you to see the first and third party sites you visit and interact with as you browse the Internet. Then, it shows you the relationship between these sites. By creating a network of sites, Lightbeam shows you who exactly is mining your online data. LifeLock is another useful tool for anyone who is concerned about online safety. It monitors and protects your financial data and credit report to ensure no one is pilfering your information either online or in real life.
Another option is to cloak your IP address. Programs like CyberGhost VPN hide your IP address. This virtual private network makes it impossible for Staples or any other company to use your IP address as a justification for inflating your prices, and it also makes it virtually impossible for companies to track your online behavior.
About the Author
Nathan Connor contributed this article and is an office IT guy who blogs about all things technology.