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How to track your trackers
There's good reason for alarm when your child comes up with daily requests for new toys and products, or at least that's what Sonia Raheja believes.
"The things my daughter wanted weren't even available locally, and this is what made me doubt the source of these demands, " says the Delhi-based software designer.
After a little investigation, Raheja found that her 10-year-old was being served with targeted advertisements whenever she browsed the internet.
"I know that online privacy is traded off for convenience, " Raheja says, "But when I checked her browsing history, I knew she had stuck to child-safe sites and search engines. " Unfortunately, these so-called safe sites have now begun selling data to "thirdparty trackers" - dubious online behaviour analysts and advertising companies.
A recent report by Keynote Systems, a mobile and Internet analysis company, studied behavioural tracking for 269 top websites in four industries - Travel and Hospitality, News and Media, Retail, and Financial Services. And the results were scary: 86 per cent of these sites placed one or more third-party tracking cookies on their visitors.
Keynote's analysis also discovered that of the 211 third-party trackers identified during the study, only one committed to honour a visitor's request not to be tracked via the new 'Do Not Track' feature found in some new browsers.
In addition, News and Media sites expose visitors to an average of 14 unique third-party tracking companies during the course of a typical visit, claims Ray Everett from Keynote Systems.
And a bigger alarming trend is the focus on popular kids' websites. There are two main reasons for this trend, experts aver. First, many of these portals are smaller mom and pop organisations, which are more than likely to give in to advertisers for extra money. Second, kids are more likely to entrust personal information about themselves and their families to websites.
According to Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla Corporation, these online thirdparty tracking companies made around $39 billion in the last year alone. So how do you keep these trackers at bay? One easy solution is to simply block tracking cookies on your browser. But unfortunately, this will mean that many websites will simply stop working properly. Besides, some online trackers help users find relevant content faster, thus saving time.
A better idea is to selectively block cookies that pose a danger to your privacy and also to avoid certain websites. To that effect, you could start by using resources like PrivacyChoice and Collusion.
PrivacyChoice is a tool that informs you about which websites are tracking your activities, so you can make informed decisions about the online properties you need to avoid. The company has analysed and indexed data from hundreds of privacy policies across the internet.
Additionally, they have developed a system that allots a score to websites on a scale of 0 to 100 (where higher is better) based on how the site collects and uses personal data. For instance, a site gets 10 points if they delete the data stored in their cookies promptly when the user logs out of the account;30 points if the site does not share personal data such as names, phone numbers and email addresses.
They also rank third-party companies such as advertisers, thus giving you an idea of which ones you can trust. To use the service, visit privacyscore. com and enter the URL you want checked out. Currently, the worst offenders include merriam-webster. com and apps. facebook. com.
You can also download a browser plug-in that will show you a privacy score at the top of each website you visit. "Our intention is to provide web publishers and users with a way in which they can easily compare privacy practices across the web, " says Jim Brock, the founder of PrivacyChoice. "The transparency will not only allow people to make smarter decisions about their own data, but will give rise to more protective privacy practices by websites and tracking companies. "
Users of Firefox, Chrome and Safari browsers can also try out an experimental plug-in called Collusion (www. mozilla. org/ en-US /collusion;disconnect. me/tools) - a graphical tool that tracks all the websites that are tracking you.
Collusion sits on top of your browser and snoops on the different sites that collect your digital breadcrumbs to compile your profile.
Unlike difficult-to-use geeky tools, Collusion has a simple graphical interface that looks like a colour-coded molecular structure. Just clicking on the tool icon will bring up a dot matrix diagram made up of different dots linked with arrows. The ones with a blue ring denote the websites that you actually visited while all the rest are third-party data collectors. Along with showing the link between these websites, they also give you a snapshot of the company tracking you.
To get an idea, try the demonstration at collusion. toolness. org. The first click takes you to the famous Internet Movie Database site (www. imdb. com) and shows three cookies tracking what you do at IMDB.
Next, it takes you to other popular places like Thesaurus. com and Gamespot. com. That's when you see a pattern emerging. Some of the same cookies that were tracking you in IMDB are now tracking you at all these other sites too. Connecting these dots across diverse sites will slowly create your online persona that discloses a freaky lot about you.
The information you get from Collusion lets you make an informed decision of which third-party sites to weed out and which you can live with.
(With additional reporting by Javed Anwer)
GETTING RID OF THE TRACKERS
Flushing out cookies is a fairly simple process: You can simply delete all the stored cookies from your browser settings. However, clever snoopers use "super-cookies", which let sites record statistics like what advertisements you clicked on and whether you shopped. These are not removed when you clear out your browser. To get rid of these, you will have to enlist the help of specialised tools and follow certain best practices...
Internet Explorer 9 comes with an inbuilt feature called 'Tracking Protection'. If you are running the older version of Internet Explorer, you should upgrade. You can simply turn on the feature while setting up your browser to control what what information the widgets and scripts can access - and even pull data for each site you visit.
You can install tools such as CCleaner (www. piriform. com/ccleaner) that works for all major browsers, or Ghostery (Ghostery. com) that works with IE, Firefox and Chrome. Use browser add-ons like AdBlock Plus. This will not only make your web browsing experience clutter-free, but will also help you stay hidden from the prying eyes of advertisers.
All browsers - Chrome, Firefox, IE, Opera and Safari - offer the Incognito/Private Browsing mode. This will take care of basic cookies and tracking by websites. Google tracks users when they are logged into its services. If it is something that bothers you, go to Google Dashboard and control how the company can use the data it collects from you.
Similarly, sign out from web services whenever you're not using them. Most services monitor your browsing habits when you're signed in. Be careful while installing browser toolbars. In fact, if you can help it, don't install any of them. These little programs often monitor your web browsing habits.
From time to time, run a computer scan. This will catch adware or spyware that may have sneaked into your computer.
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