I am the TechnologyInterpreter. Here are some of my writing to show that I can clearly explain technical information. If you need manuals or documentation, contact me. I've worked in Windows support over 20 years and many people come to me with all sorts of random questions. When I complete a particularly comprehensive correspondence on a particularly common issue, I'll post it here.
Disclaimers at http://zaitech.com/satellite/disclaimer.htm.
Note: The tips that follow reference one or all of Firefox, Google Chrome (Chrome), or Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). Other browsers probably have similar features; but when I say “all,” I’m referring to all of these three. Examples come from recent versions of the browsers: Firefox 11, Chrome 18, and IE 8.
The good news is that you should be able to ameliorate a lot of the techniques to track you that web sites use. Much internet tracking is based on good old-fashioned web (html) cookies. It’s easy to block cookies. Unfortunately, being followed by cookies is also vital to much of the productivity of the internet. They allow sites to remember who you are as you move from page-to-page; for example, from Add to cart to Continue shopping and back. They come in 2 basic flavors: first party and third party. (To find out about first and third parties, read our next post.) First party cookies are good to OK; but you might think twice about third party.
The easiest and most powerful way to protect yourself from tracking is by using a private browsing session. (instructions: next post). In this case, nothing, about your session stays on your computer when you close the browser. You can’t come back to a search or be automatically logged in at any site. You should always use private browsing on a computer you don’t control.
If that is too aggressive, your browser can control what it does with cookies. With greater or lesser ease (instructions: next post), you can usually tell the browser to block all cookies or only third party cookies. You can also accept cookies but tell your browser to throw them away at the end of the session. This gives you the advantages of using cookies; but websites won’t know about you the next time you go there. FireFox also allows you to choose your action for every cookie you’re given. This gets tedious fast, but is revealing as to how pervasive cookies are.
Another option is to choose a browser that you never sign to a site or fill out a form. Use another browser for your shopping, Gmail, or social networks. Financial transactions ideally should be transacted only in a private session. Although you trust your financial institution; you may be logged in, either temporarily or permanently, to another site which might benignly or maliciously have a small chance of tracking you there.
Unrelated to cookies; if you follow a link to a site, it knows where you came from and, if a search engine, what the search terms were. So if you got here by searching “Block that cookie” on Bing; Blogspot (a Google service) knows that. Although this form of tracking is relatively benign and primarily used by a site to fine tune its own advertising, you can avoid it by not clicking the link, but type it into another browser.
On the other hand, there are ways that your computer may be tracked that don’t rely on html cookies or a specific browser.
The primary piece of news is that Google is now consolidating tracking information from all of their services. This means you have the same login, profile, and preferences for Gmail, Google Apps, YouTube, and more. That’s not scary – since before Google was a college project; AOL and Microsoft, among many other services, have had a single login so your mail and instant messenger shared contact lists.
What is scary is that Google can consolidate your information across sites that you don’t log in to explicitly or sites you don’t realize are part of the Google family. For example, if you read a blog about the Parthenon on Blogspot and search for information on passports; the next time you check your mail you may see ads for Mediterranean cruises.
This is because one web service can track you across multiple websites. Since ads on many websites may come from the same ad server, you can be tracked even if the address you enter is a completely unrelated to any other place you’ve been.
Many web services pay close attention to where you came from, what you do, and where you go to build a profile of you. The more they know about you, the more valuable you are to advertisers and the more they can charge. (They’re not necessarily identifying you as a person by name and credit card number, but you as a 45-55-year-old male in a large southern city with 2 kids in college and an income over $80,000.)
However, if you’ve been logged in to a site that tracks you – such as Google – then they can tie your information to a real person with a name, address, credit card number, and possibly other details you’ve given them or their partners. They may not use all that information, but it makes your ads – and search results – more focused. (It may also make your search results less diverse. If you have previously selected the Washington Post, you may never again see a result from Fox News.)
I’m not picking on Google exclusively. Google just happens to be the biggest target today. I am less concerned being tracked by Google than I might be by a lot of other services.
The good news is that you should be able to ameliorate a lot of the techniques to track you that web sites use. Keep reading here:
But if you really want to be scared about tracking, your smartphone itself and many of the apps you’ve installed may be able to track you – not on the web, but in real life. And at the moment, there may be no way to control that tracking while still taking advantage of the reasons you got a smartphone.