Ratcheting Up Your Web-Browsing Privacy
Jul 19, 2012 5:00 AM PT
I've never taken that much notice of my privacy, or lack of, as I've been surfing the Web. However, after recent, obviously targeted advertising directed at me, where the ads blatantly reflected some product research I had just performed, I decided to investigate.
Innocuous focused advertising, which can be informative, can simply feel like a violation. Other intrusions can be downright dangerous, though, and can include password lifting, and other unscrupulous sniffing around.
Here's a rundown of how to initiate a Web-based privacy cleanup, along with some of the tools available and the potential downsides.
Step 1: Tell websites you don't want to be tracked.
Open your Web browser's privacy settings and make changes to the cookies settings. Cookies are small text files that allow websites to recognize the device.
In Firefox, check "Tell websites I do not want to be tracked." In Chrome, check "Block third-party cookies and site data."
Look for written cookie policies on the website itself to get a picture of what the site is learning. Cookies termed "Behaviorally Targeted" are the ones that serve you advertisements. Telling websites you don't want to be tracked can stop this data collection.
Remove cookies from websites that have already sent to you in the same privacy dialog.
Step 2: Manage your profile on common Web properties.
Browse to properties like Facebook and Google and look for privacy settings that allow you to restrict their activities.
Facebook lets you block apps and manage settings for ads, apps, games and websites. Look for the "Privacy Settings" within the "Home" dropdown.
Google has a dashboard that lets you revoke access for websites that can access your account, among other things.
Managing your profiles will let you restrict superfluous access to your Internet use.
Downside: Searching for the privacy settings is laborious and time consuming.
Step 3: Become Anonymous.
Virtual Private Networks
Your unique IP address can be used to associate your machine with your browsing.
Sign up to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service that encrypts your Web traffic and changes your IP address. I recently wrote about VPNs in an article about staying safe and secure while using public WiFi.
VPNs -- like services Private WiFi and Anonymizer -- create a tunnel through the Internet and encrypt everything in the tunnel. This allows you to browse the Web anonymously, because it not only encrypts your traffic, but also allows you to enter the Internet with an anonymous IP address unrelated to your actual IP address.
Downside: VPNs cost money -- up to $10 a month. They also require setup.
Use a free proxy. Public proxy servers are an alternative to VPNs. With a free public proxy, you browse to its Web page and enter the URL of the website you want to visit. The proxy acts as an agent, hides your IP address, and makes the request on your behalf. Thus your browsing is anonymous.
Downside: Public proxies are cumbersome to work with because you have two browsing steps for each Web page you want to visit -- the proxy and then the website itself. There can also be bandwidth issues. Data isn't encrypted like in a VPN.
Both proxies and VPNs involve a certain amount of trust -- the operator could access your surfing history if logs were retained.
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