There is no quick fix for online privacy protection. Unfortunately the internet is not an opt-in universe where the user has the power to check a box of whether or not to allow data tracking companies to track her clicks across the web.
What most people don’t realize is that a visit to one article on a site like CNN actually allows dozens of companies to track your web browsing activities from that moment on. Yes, they are doing much more than tracking you on that one website which didn’t tell you that these companies have deals with them to suck your information.
Another little known fact is that the goldmine for these companies is that they can track you because you are a friend of someone else. For instance, if you are my Facebook friend and a data retrieval company is tracking me, they will be able to reach your information because we are connected. This is truly the dark side of online connectivity.
Every day we go online, read news, share on social media sites, listen to music, research everything from how to cook a recipe to how the latest health fad can slim our waistlines. Each click of the mouse as we do these things leaves breadcrumb trails of our interests, needs and websites we stumble upon.
We all know that, right? But do you know about Flash cookies that leave an unlimited number of cookies on your computer? These cookies track your web browsing activity for hundreds of companies you don’t even know exist. They may have access to the information you leave about your finances, health, relationships, interests, birthdays, preferences, address, occupation, age and more. This information affects which online advertising you are served up, which credit card offers you are presented with, while also creating a profile of you with both correct and incorrect assumptions based on these connections.
I learned about Flash cookies, or Flash Local Shared Objects (LSOs), while watching a Ted Talk video of Gary Kovacs, the CEO of Mozilla, describe the new free Collusion Firefox add-on. Kovacs’ talk on Tracking the Trackers is a wakeup call to how much privacy we have unknowingly given away as the price of using the internet.
The two examples Kovacs gives of using Collusion himself end with his being tracked by over 150 companies without his consent at the end of one day on the internet, and his nine-year-old daughter being tracked by over 40 companies after a two-hour session online.
Behavioral tracking, when done with our permission, can help companies we like to connect us to deals, offers, products and services that make our lives better. But the reality today is that the majority of the companies that track us online and collect data on our activities never asked for permission and we never would give them permission if they did ask. As an industry described by Kovacs as being worth over $39 billion, it is safe to assume they will fight regulation and giving consumers the power to choose which companies they allow to track their online information.
Rules and regulations for consumer protection against the darker side of behavioral targeting have not been created. If Lori Anderson, the author of I Know Who You Are and I Know What You Did, has her way, we will eventually create a social networking constitution that may be the first positive step in rectifying this situation.
To protect yourself and your family today you can add Collusion, Better Privacy and No Script to your Firefox browser. If you are a Chrome browser user you can add Keep My Opt-Outs and Do Not Track PlusChrome browser extensions and follow these steps to manually remove Flash cookies from your computer.