How to Maintain Digital Privacy

At Bluestone Analytics, our focus is on helping businesses defend their data against advanced cyber threats. However, we often get questions from individuals about how to maintain their privacy online. As the number of connected devices grows, and the amount of data companies process increases exponentially, consumers have every right to be concerned about who is tracking their online activity and how companies are using their data. We've outlined the main ways companies obtain and use your personal information, as well as simple steps you can take to reduce the amount of targeted ads you receive.  

How do companies track me?

In order to prevent companies from tracking your activity online, it is important to understand how they gather and use consumer data. 

Cookies

Cookies are small bits of text that are stored in your browser and allow websites to remember information about your visit, such as your preferred language, items saved in your shopping cart, and your username & password. Cookies do not store Personally Identifiable Information (PII), but will keep track of general user preferences that can be transferred to other sites. Cookies are responsible for ads that appeal to your general interests. For example, if you spend a lot of time reading about technology and looking at gadgets online, you will tend to see advertisements for the latest phones, whereas your friend who spends their time on food blogs will see more advertisements for cookware. 

Device IDs

Device IDs are similar to cookies, but they do not require a web address. They allow advertisers to follow your behavior on mobile (including while using apps). Like cookies, they give advertisers information about your general preferences and can be used to group you into a “target audience,” which will determine what types of ads you see. 

Tracking pixels

A tracking pixel is a snippet of code that allows websites to track your behavior on their site. The code is used to monitor which pages you visit, how long you spend on each page, and whether or not you made a purchase or completed another desired action, like signing up for a newsletter. Pixels are responsible for retargeting ads, which attempt to lure you back to a website using an ad for specific products you viewed while on the site earlier. Like cookies, they do not directly collect PII, but they are used to build your consumer profile and group you into target audiences.

IP-mapping and geolocation

Many sites and apps rely on IP-Mapping and Geolocation to identify your physical location and provide accurate information and applicable search results. However, this information can also be used to obtain other personal information. For example, your IP address can be mapped to your physical address. By combining publicly available or purchased data about your household (such as income, marital status, or number of vehicles) with your online habits, advertisers can develop an eerily accurate consumer profile.

Microphone access

When consumers complain that they had a conversation with a friend about getting in shape, and within hours started seeing targeted ads for home gyms and protein shakes, they often suspect that enabled microphone access is to blame. While it is unlikely that full conversations are digested and used for advertising, audio keyword recognitionis plausible. Consumers who use digital assistants like Alexa, Siri, or Google need to think about where their data may go. Amazon and Google both offer digital marketing services with extensive targeting options and behavior analytics. It seems likely that they would incorporate at least some of the massive amounts of consumer data gleaned from their voice assistants into their advertising platforms.

User license agreements

Often, the primary difference between spyware and modern marketing is a user agreement. End User License Agreements (EULAs) are notoriously long, incredibly dense, and laden with legalese. They may allow companies to access your contacts, use your microphone or webcam, or even track all of your online activity. Because so few people read these agreements, and you must accept the terms in order to use the service, often consumers have very little idea how much power they are giving to companies and advertisers. 

Simple ways to improve privacy online

Though it is almost impossible to remain completely anonymous online, there are steps you can take to reduce your digital trail.  

Don't rely on incognito mode

Private browsing is not as effective as you may think. Going incognito doesn't block third-parties from tracking your activities or determining your location. It also doesn't prevent your browsing history from being viewed by your ISP, government agencies, or whoever runs the network you are using, such as your employer. In reality, all incognito mode does is prevent Chrome from saving browser history, cookies, and site data locally. 

Think before you download

The old saying "If the product is free then the product is you" has never been more applicable. Free apps and browser extensions often make profits by selling data about user behavior. Though it is unrealistic to carefully read every EULA, think carefully about the apps you download and what type of data they may be able to collect. Always assume that they will sell your data to third parties or use your information for targeted advertising. 

Manage permissions and settings

Many websites allow you to block cookies, disable location sharing, or turn off ad personalization simply by adjusting your settings. After installing an app, look at what type of permissions it has been granted by default, and modify as appropriate. Geolocation services and microphone or camera access are typically the most intrusive. 

Use a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates a secure connection between a user and a remote access point. Using a VPN masks your internet habits from your ISP, which can sell data about your browsing habits to third-parties. By using a VPN, you are transferring trust from your ISP to the VPN company, so it is important to find one that you trust or set even set up your own

Use an ad blocker

While an ad blocker won't necessarily stop advertisers from collecting your personal data, it will reduce the number of advertisements (including targeted ads) that you see. 

Manage your risks

For our corporate clients, we always advocate for effective risk management, and the same is true for individuals looking to improve privacy online. Do a little research before downloading or installing programs or apps, and always weigh the potential privacy risks against the benefits.