Hacked, Tracked, And Attacked. How Ad Companies Track Your Online Activity.

Hacked, Tracked, And Attacked. How Ad Companies Track Your Online Activity.

Have you ever wondered why some online ads you see are targeted to your tastes and interests, or how websites remember your preferences from visit to visit? It’s no secret that there’s big money to be made in online advertising. Companies will pay big bucks to learn more about you, and service providers along with social media companies on the web are eager to get their hands on as much information about you as possible so as to serve up ads you might be interested in. So what do you do? How can you keep your information out of everyone else’s hands?

Well, as the old adage goes, “If you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product, not the customer,” and when it comes to the companies and advertising on the Internet this has never been more true. These days you hear much more news about online privacy and how easy it is for companies to track your every move on the web to learn as much about your browsing habits and activities as possible.

Make no mistake, your personal information is valuable. More valuable than you might think. The real money is in taking your data and sharing it with third parties to help them come up with new ways to convince you to spend money, sign up for services, and give up more information. Sure, having relevant ads pop up on your screen might be convenient, but the real value in your data exists where you won’t see it until you’re too tempted by the offer to know where it came from, whether it’s a coupon in your mailbox or a new daily deal site with incredible bargains tailored to your desires. It all sounds good until you realize the only thing you have to trade for such “exciting” bargains is everything personal about you: your age, income, family’s ages and income, medical history, dietary habits, favorite web sites, your birthday…the list goes on.

It would be fine if you decided to give up this information for a tangible benefit, but you may never see a benefit aside from a bunch of ads popping up on your screen, and one must keep in mind that no one’s including you in this decision either.

So, it turns out that every device you use to surf the web has to talk and interact with each and every site you go on. When your device interacts with a site it can be asked to save special files on your device. Now, in the past this was either done by tracking your IP Address or saving a tracking cookie; which is a simple text file would could contain bits of information about your online activities which tracked your behavior across sites. But these days things have gotten much more sophisticated.

It turns out that each device you have behaves in a subtly different way when the code or scripts from a web page interacts with it, in a manner that’s completely invisible to the user and this can be used to derive a fingerprint of the device, so the third parties (which would be the advertisers) can tell when the same user of the same device is visiting again even if you have cookie’s turned off. This technique is known as canvas fingerprinting. It works when one of these scripts is running on a website you visit, it instructs your browser to draw an invisible image. Because every device does it in a unique way, it can be used to assign a number to your machine and effectively track your browsing habits. If that sounds like the kind of shady thing you’d only find in the dark recesses of the Internet, then you’ll be disappointed to hear that all sorts of popular, and even well-respected sites, are running these scripts.

We’re often sold the line that companies are only collecting anonymous data. This is something that I very hard to believe. Based upon my research it looks like it is possible to de-anonymize many anonymous databases. Many of these anonymous databases in which our information is collected started out with purposes that consumers are comfortable with, but when you combine it with the complete lack or transparency, accountability, and regulation there’s an enormous opportunity for misuse. For instance, what happens when the company goes bankrupt, the database gets hacked, or there’s a rogue employee?

With that in mind, there’s also evidence of a growing industry that’s aiming to tie together your online habits with your offline purchasing habits. For instance, if a store asks you for your email address at the counter when you make a purchase, they may share it with other companies, which can identify when you use it to sign in to specific websites that they’re in business with and then link it to your device. Now companies can put a real name to the data.

There’s not one magic bullet solution out there but if you’re willing to invest a little time, it’s possible to protect your privacy. For the average person who is concerned about getting their browsing habits tracked there are lots of browser extensions you can install to block ad companies from tracking your viewing habits and one that comes to my mind and one that I use is called AdBlock Plus. And if you go to (www.adblockplus.org) you can find out more. It works on many modern web browsers. Ghostery is another full-featured solution that I would recommend and if you go to their website at (www.ghostery.com) you can find out more as well.

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