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Websites are collecting your personal data, 3 steps to stop them

Most of us know that when we browse the Internet the sites we visit may be collecting information about us. This leads to the convenience of having our username saved or seeing ads that actually interest us. However, there are tradeoffs for these small conveniences and the extent of this online tracking may surprise you.

According to a Wall Street Journal study, the nation’s top fifty websites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors. When you visit a site, analytics companies and data aggregators may be collecting information about you for advertising purposes. New tools can track in real time the data you are accessing on a web page and combine that with data about that your location, age, income, hobbies, and even medical problems. These groups may have access to screen names or email addresses that might be used to re-identify individuals.

Currently, there are no regulations or limits on what can be collected and the majority of people are opposed to this type of tracking. According to the Pew Internet & American Life survey (February 2012):

  • 73% of people say they would not be okay with a search engine keeping track of their searches and using that information to personalize future search results because they feel it is an invasion of privacy.
  • Only 23% say they would be okay with a search engine keeping track of searches and using that information to personalize future search results, even if it means they are gathering information

If you see this type of tracking of your online behavior as an invasion of privacy, here are three steps you can take to reduce identity tracking online.

1. Become aware of how many people are tracking your behavior. Ghostery is a browser tool that scans pages and notifies you of the companies who are tracking your visit to the website.  It allows you to learn more about these companies and block them from loading, if you choose. To block any of the trackers, simply configure your settings in the preferences menu of Ghostery.

2. Use a non-tracking search engine. An alternative search option, DuckDuckGo.com, does not track users and does not generate search results based on a user’s previous interests. While this may potentially filter out relevant information, the searches are not cluttered with ads. DuckDuckGo is growing in popularity; searches went up from 10 million a month in October 2011 to 45 million this past October.

3. Opt out of tracking using your browser’s privacy settings. Microsoft created a stir this year when they released the new Internet Explorer 10 with the Do Not Track (DNT) option automatically enabled. Other browsers already offered this choice, but the users had to actively choose the option. Of course, electing this option is largely symbolic. Without regulations in place, tracking companies are free to ignore the signal they get from the browsers and track you anyway. Still, electing the DNT is a way of sending a signal about how you feel about being tracked.

Remaining anonymous online is becoming increasingly difficult and while these steps will help reduce identity tracking, they won’t stop it. If there are some things you’d rather keep entirely private, do not search the Internet for them or visit web pages related to them.