Ratcheting Up Your Web-Browsing Privacy

I’ve never taken that much notice of my privacy, or lack of, as I’ve been surfing theWeb. However, after recent, obviously targeted advertising directed at me, where the adsblatantly reflected some product research I had just performed, I decided to investigate.

Innocuous focused advertising, which can be informative, can simply feel like aviolation. Other intrusions can be downright dangerous, though, and can include passwordlifting, 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 thesite is learning. Cookies termed “Behaviorally Targeted” are the ones that serve youadvertisements. Telling websites you don’t want to be tracked can stop this datacollection.

Remove cookies from websites that have already sent to you in the same privacy dialog.

Downside: Websites use cookies to deliver a quality user experience. Disabling cookies,while improving your privacy, will impact your surfing. For example, you will need toenter your User ID more often.

Step 2: Manage your profile on common Web properties.

Browse to properties like Facebook and Google and look for privacy settings that allowyou 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 youraccount, 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 andchanges 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 Internetand 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 withan anonymous IP address unrelated to your actual IP address.

Downside: VPNs cost money — up to $10 a month. They also require setup.

Public Proxies

Use a free proxy. Public proxy servers are an alternative to VPNs. With a free publicproxy, 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 browsingsteps for each Web page you want to visit — the proxy and then the website itself. Therecan 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 yoursurfing history if logs were retained.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you’d like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that’s got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me at patrick[dot]nelson[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com, and I’ll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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