There’s nothing more disconcerting than having the pair of shoes you once considered buying stalking you around the web, popping up in advertisements while you read the morning news, browse Facebook or send an email.
Nothing, it seems, is truly private online, whether it’s your shopping history, the medical conditions you Google or hobbies that interest you.
Online marketers have cashed in, identifying ways to direct advertisements to consumers, pinpointing their locations, interests and insecurities. For some internet users, it can be a struggle to view all that advertising without succumbing to impulse shopping and other bad financial behaviors.
“It’s like window-shopping 24 hours a day, but window-shopping that is targeted specifically to you,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based nonprofit that advocates for consumers’ privacy rights. “The stores that you’re window-shopping in know everything about you.”
With Congress recently overturning online privacy protections limiting what internet service providers, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, can do with your online information, consumers may need to adopt a do-it-yourself attitude when it comes to protecting personal data, including browsing habits, location data and financial information.
If a lack of online privacy makes you want to grab your computer, head to the woods and set it on fire, don’t despair. You can take some simple measures to somewhat protect your privacy by tweaking things like your search engine, browser settings and social media habits. Experts do warn, however, that you are unlikely to ever be able to totally hide your online footprint. (And, unfortunately, for those who want to secure information from internet service providers, who will now find it easier to sell user data, per the recent Congressional action, privacy options are even tougher to implement.) Here’s what to know.
Opt out. Some sites and browsers may allow you to opt out of information-sharing, Stephens says. It sounds like a pain – and it is – but you can research what options are available by reading their privacy policies and using those opt-out opportunities when they exist.
The Digital Advertising Alliance, for example, allows users to opt out of certain targeted ads, although it doesn’t necessarily stop the advertisers from continuing to monitor your online activity. Facebook has a similar program. If impulse shopping is a concern, opting out may help nix some advertiser temptations.
Your browser may also allow you to request that advertisers refrain from tracking you. For example, Mozilla Firefox’s “Do Not Track” feature allows you to tell websites that you’d like to avoid third-party tracking, including tracking for behavioral advertising, according to Firefox.
Delete cookies. They sound delicious, but for the privacy-conscious, they have a nasty aftertaste. Cookies are information saved by your web browser. First-party cookies are those placed by sites you visit to recognize your device and recall aspects of your visit, like if you stored items in your shopping cart. Third-party cookies are placed by an outside site, such as an advertising partner. When possible, use browser settings to prevent sites from placing cookies. “Do not allow [your browser] to accept third-party cookies,” Stephens says.
Conducting online searches in a private or “incognito” mode, an option offered by many browsers, can prevent your browser from retaining cookies accumulated during your private search session. This is not a complete solution, however, and there are still methods to track your web activity, even within incognito mode, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Use a shopping email. Using an email address – or several – dedicated to online purchases goes beyond helping you avoid temptation in your inbox. It can also help separate your profile as a shopper from your other online profiles, boosting your online security and privacy. “Use several email addresses so all of your information is not tied to a single email address,” Stephens says.
Think beyond the desktop. Don’t forget that privacy concerns go beyond your old-school desktop computer. In fact, they apply to your mobile phone, too, and are complicated by the fact that your cellphone has the ability to track your location as you move through your day. Disable location-tracking services when you don’t need to use them, and take caution when downloading apps that require unfettered access to your information, experts say.
Know that it’ll be a pain. The fact is that logging in and out of your accounts each time you plan to surf the web is a pain in the rear. And for some consumers, the hassle isn’t worth it. “Different consumers have different preferences when it comes to their privacy,” says Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection. “Some may be willing to trade their personal information for coupons and discounts.”
But if you aim to keep your personal information locked down, you’ll need to read the privacy policies of websites and phone applications, and change settings, update security preferences or choose to forgo them altogether when you feel uncomfortable with what they collect.
And that will only help so much. At the end of the day, you can take steps to obfuscate and obscure your activity from online businesses, but it’s tricky to check out entirely. Says Moy: “It’s really difficult to hide everything that you do online from an advertiser or a massive advertising network like the one that Google operates.”