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Tech Tonic

Resisting online tracking programs


Keeping your computer free of stealthy data-collecting software is not easy because of the ad industry's aggressive and sophisticated efforts.

If you have ever worried about specifically aimed ads that seem aware of your private moments on the web, such as looking at sites for kitten-heel pumps, eczema medications or how to get out of debt, here is something else to fret about. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy, says, "It's like trying to get the room of your teenager clean. You have to do it all again the next day. " A number of tools can minimise tracking, but using them requires considerable effort and tech know-how.

"They're for people with tinfoil hats, " said Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission is examining the effectiveness and usability of these tools. It is trying to determine whether something simpler for consumers, like a do-not-track registry akin to the federal Do Not Call Registry, is feasible. The agency's commissioners plan to make their views known this fall, says Christopher Olsen, assistant director in the agency's Division of Privacy and Identity Protection.

Online publishers, retailers and other sites you visit often let advertising companies place cookies, a small bit of software, on your computer to track your online activity. You can remove standard cookies using the features of any major browser, but consider deleting these ad-related cookies manually to avoid trashing those set by your favourite websites intended to save passwords and personal preferences.

However, advertisers are increasingly using powerful software known as supercookies, such as so-called Flash and document object management (or DOM) cookies, which can hold more information, and web bugs or beacons, which let sites record statistics like what ads attracted you to the site and whether you bought something. They are not removed when you clear out your cookies.

To remove tracking programs and keep them out, it is better to enlist the help of specialised software, Dixon said. She and other privacy advocates recommend a free plug-in known as Taco, available for both Firefox and Internet Explorer, from the privacy-software start-up Abine. Taco helps web users manage and delete standard cookies, Flash and DOM supercookies and Web bugs. It also lets you see who is trying to follow your online movements and helps you decline targeted ads from more than 100 ad networks.

Other free browser plug-ins include Better Privacy for Firefox, which removes supercookies every time you close your browser;Ghostery for Firefox, Chrome and Internet Explorer, which controls web bugs;and CCleaner, for all major browsers, which removes cookies and surfing history. NoScript for Firefox and the similarly named NoScripts for Chrome can block supercookies, web bugs and ads.

One way to stop ad networks from gathering data is to use a new feature introduced in the Internet Explorer 8 browser called InPrivate Filtering, which stops data from travelling between you and third parties who ask for it frequently. Note: InPrivate Filtering has to be turned on each time you fire up your browser;select InPrivate Filtering from the Safety menu. Firefox's Private Browsing mode and Chrome's Incognito will both block cookies and stop the browser from remembering the sites you visit.
And be careful what information you give out about yourself, whether on site registration forms, online surveys or on social networks. Interests you volunteer will undoubtedly be used to tailor ads you see around the web. Web searches can also be used to inform advertisers about your likely interests. Google says it does not use search history in directing specific ads, but both Microsoft and Yahoo do. Slow down the marketers by spreading your searches among several engines, Dixon says. Also consider using different companies for search and web-based e-mail. For instance, use Google for search if you use Yahoo Mail. Or sign-out of e-mail and clear your cookies and history before you search, so your search data and e-mail data are not connected. Alternately, use a search engine that does not track users' activity. Scroogle. org lets you search with Google without being tracked or seeing ads. Startpage runs simultaneous searches on multiple engines anonymously.

Your online activity is also tracked based on the string of characters associated with your computer, known as an IP address. If

your IP address never changes, advertisers can amass a large history. If you do not get a dynamic, or regularly changing, IP address from your Internet service provider, reset it periodically by unplugging and then plugging in your modem. Or mask your IP address using Tora nonprofit service that makes online activity anonymous, or a virtual-private-network service, such as OpenVPN, which adds privacy and security by encrypting your internet traffic.

The Network Advertising Initiative, an association of advertising networks, data exchanges and marketing analytics companies, helps consumers opt out of behavioural advertising from its 50 or so members. The service, which places opt-out cookies on your computer, does not stop tracking;it just stops ads tailored to your habits. The group's Firefox plugin can keep you from inadvertently erasing the optout cookies when clearing out other cookies.

Look out for a new icon that has begun appearing on some ads that, when clicked, provides information on how the ad was directed and how to stop getting them. The icon is an initiative of the Future of Privacy Forum that has been embraced by the advertising industry and is being managed by Ghostery.

Exactly what information advertisers gather is murky. A handful of companies provide consumers with some control. For instance, Google, Yahoo and online data exchanges BlueKai, Bizo and Rapleaf will show you what interests they believe you have, and let you delete them. They also let you opt out of getting "interest-based" ads altogether.

Reader's opinion (5)

ankush agrawalJul 15th, 2011 at 18:06 PM

Great Work Crest.

Usha JNov 26th, 2010 at 23:14 PM

Fantastic and enlightening tips. Keep us updated like this...

Abhijit MondalNov 26th, 2010 at 22:36 PM

Our country is still little behind from rest of the internet accessible countries. That may be 5 years and thus 'mobile boom' like mania would cover major small towns and villages. Advertisers would be salivating at this point. What is the use if people does not benefit form the data collected,CSR?

Ksr Nov 24th, 2010 at 10:33 AM


Jovial JoeNov 21st, 2010 at 15:16 PM

Thank you crest.A very interesting read indeed.
Kudos to the times team for bringing such enlightening thoughts!

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