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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Ways to Make Your Online Tracks Harder to Follow

There are few secrets in our digital worlds.

Many details about us can be â€" and often are â€" tracked, collected, collated and analyzed. Companies mine personal information in the name of profit. Government authorities mine it in the name of security.

Privacy advocates say most Americans do not know they are being tracked. That is why, these experts argue, new laws and policies should be adopted to limit data collection, increase transparency and protect everyone’s privacy. Otherwise, some people will take steps to protect themselves and others won’t.

“Do we really want a cadre of people who protect themselves, a privacy elite? What does that make everyone else, easy pickings?” said Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall School of Law who is writing a book on technology called “The Black Box Society.” “I think self-help is a complete myth. There is no good self-defense.”

The only real way to avoid data profiling would be to go off the grid. No Internet. No mobie phones. No credit cards. Basically, none of the conveniences and connectivity of modern life. That isn’t an option for most of us. But there are ways to minimize our digital footprints and at least nominally impede government or commercial surveillance. Here are a few of them:


Alexei Miagkov, a leading product engineer for Ghostery, a free browser extension that lets Internet users track and control third-party data collection, carries an old “dumb phone,” the kind that can make calls, send text messages, take photos â€" and that’s about it. Smartphones, he says, are de facto tracking devices.

“If you think about a smartphone, it’s a little computer in your pocket, and it’s always connected,” he said. Using a low-tech phone “reduces my footprint, my privacy exposure, because I don’t have unknown third parties collecting my information.”


Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist at t! he Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco, uses a variety of e-mail addresses, some of them fake, to help obfuscate his online activities.

That is because companies can share people’s e-mail addresses, he says, allowing some analytics or marketing companies to connect the activities of a person who logs in with the same e-mail address across many sites. If users register for a service using addresses containing their real names or variations of their names, companies may be able to connect those address with those people’s identities.

“I think it’s common to be wary of giving out your personal information for every single service,” Mr. Auerbach said. “If you are going to give me a sign-up form, I am going to give you a bogus answer back. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.”


When a person goes online, companies like ad networks and data brokers may use cookies â€" bits of code â€" and oher techniques to track that user around the Web. Jonathan Mayer, a graduate student in computer science and law at Stanford, employs an arsenal of cookie countermeasures.

Mr. Mayer turns on private browsing mode, a setting that prevents the browser from storing information about Web sites visited during a particular online session. He has also installed free browser extensions, like Adblock Plus, that allow him to block ads and disable online tracking. These programs can also be used to disable buttons from social networks like Facebook and Google Plus, preventing the networks from following a user’s online activities from site to site.

“I don’t want companies I never heard of to know what I am doing on the Web,” Mr. Mayer said. Even with services he does use, he said, “I would like not to have everything I look for be correlated, what articles I read, the videos I watch.”


To inhibit online trackers, Edward W. Felten, a prof! essor of ! computer science and public affairs at Princeton, uses three different browsers: Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox. He says he reserves one browser for e-mail, another for social networking and a third for general browsing. And never the three shall meet.

“To the extent that you as a consumer can frustrate the trackers,” Professor Felten said, “you may reduce the amount of tracking going on.”


Credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards â€" all leave digital trails that are easy to track. That may be fine with most people for most transactions, but experts like Professor Felten recommend that people pay cash for items they want to keep private, like health products.

“You can buy something with cash and without a loyalty card and it probably will not end up in a record,” he says.

Other experts recommend paying cash for products like alcohol, cigarettes, condoms or fast food.

“Things that you reveal in transactions that youdo with your name attached, you should assume people can make inferences and it can be difficult to predict what those inferences might be,” Professor Felten said. “You might decide it’s O.K. and make peace with it. Or you might decide to pull back and be a little more cautious.”

In other words, that old countermeasure to flesh-and-blood busybodies espoused by Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter,” a sensation of 1850, remains good advice even in an era of Big Data.

“We must not always talk in the marketplace,” Hester Prynne said, “of what happens to us in the forest.”