The idea that our privacy is at risk when we share information over the internet is no secret. That’s why passwords were created, and that’s why most conscientious web users are concerned about privacy concerns when using social networking sites and when making purchases online. However, even some security-savvy individuals may be surprised to learn the extent to which our personal information is being tracked online.
Cookies and beacons are small computer files that website operators often install on users’ computers to track their browsing activity. Sometimes these files may be harmless and may even be useful to users, allowing operators to measure the efficiency of their sites and to serve users better. However, some cookies and beacons are specifically designed to track web browsing activity in order to profile user interests and tastes. This information is often then sold to companies that use the material to direct their marketing strategies to consumers.
Some people have no problem with this kind of electronic surveillance if it results in a more efficient and targeted form of advertising that is tailored to the specific tastes of individuals. However, the process has been regulated very little until recently. For those who object to having their online activities tracked in this way, taking a few simple steps can go a long way toward protecting one’s personal information.
First Line of Strike
Internet users can adopt a few simple strategies to avoid disclosing too much personal information online:
1. Never disclose personal information (address, email address, telephone number, social security number, credit card number, account number, or other sensitive information) online to sources you do not trust or to individuals you do not trust to know very well .
2. Educate yourself about the privacy policies of the websites you visit. For example, most legitimate social networking sites have information available to help users protect their privacy. They also often have various settings that users can choose from to maximize their protection.
3. Use a different username And passwords on different sites. Some people believe that mixing their passwords between social networking sites, banking sites, and email accounts is enough to keep their privacy safe. However, if you use the same username on several different websites, your personal information may be at risk.
4. Immediately delete spam. When unsolicited or bulk email arrives, never respond for any reason (including being removed from their list). And, of course, don’t try to accept anything a spammer has to offer.
5. If you have old accounts for email, online shopping, or social networking that you no longer use, close them.
6. If privacy is a big concern to you, most web browser privacy settings allow users the option to delete cookies from their computer and/or be notified when a website tries to install files on your hard drive.
The emergence of DNT
Several “Do Not Track” (DNT) features are now available, whereby users can opt out of the normal tracking practices used by certain websites. For example, the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting “openness, innovation and opportunity on the Internet” offers Firefox, a web browser that has a DNT option. The DNT feature communicates to the websites you visit that you choose not to monitor your online activity. Other browsers, including Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, offer similar DNT options.
It sounds good; Unfortunately, however, website operators are not legally required to comply with these DNT requests. In addition, many leading sites, including Google and Facebook, rely heavily on the information they learn about users from their online activity. As a result, for some companies, the interest in protecting individual privacy may outweigh the website operator’s desire to make a profit.
What’s on the Horizon
While some sites side with privacy advocates, some observers believe it is unrealistic to rely on website operators to police themselves. While advocates of stricter regulations cite privacy and security concerns for both adults and children, others argue that strict DNT policies will ultimately stifle Internet-related growth and innovation. At the moment, no definitive agreement is in sight. Therefore, for now, individuals who have a concern to protect their personal information should approach their Internet activities with caution and take careful steps to protect their privacy.