It only takes a single hacker to inject one or two lines of malicious code on a website to learn what you are doing online. A hacking code can reveal what sites you visit, letting the hacker learn your online banking site, your insurance details, the social sites you frequent, and so much more.
It goes further than that: hackers can learn details of your personal habits, and your opinion on subjects like gun rights and abortion rights. Additionally, your social comments are often scanned to target you with relevant ads.
While internet users are concerned about hacking, yet internet companies keep on tracking user’s online behavior. Internet cookies have been tracking users for the longest of time and displaying ads based on internet searches and the sites visited.
In other words, your private online browsing sessions are not very private, and entities are watching from all corners.
Who’s Watching Your Online Activities?
It’s fair to question and think, who’s watching my every online move? The reality is that the practice of surveillance dates back centuries. Surveillance activities shifted towards the internet only in the late 1990s.
Advancements in technology have led to startling ways mega corporations track your web activity without your knowledge. Several advertising networks that manage to monitor you across multiple websites secretly have launched to build thorough profiles of your internet behavior, likes, and dislikes.
Facebook’s cookies have been tracking online users for more than a decade. While the social media giant has received backlash from the community for its unethical data gathering practices, it doesn’t stop Facebook from continuing to track your online moves.
What are Cookies?
A cookie (also referred to as a web cookie, internet cookie or a browser cookie) is a tiny packet of data that is received from a website and gets stored on a user’s internet-enabled device while browsing the web.
Cookies serve multiple purposes; they help websites to remember your information (such as for an online store, the items you’ve added in their shopping cart) or they can be used to record a user’s browsing activity (such as the websites they visit, ads they click, login credentials, etc.).
Cookies can also be used to remember form fields you’ve previously entered on a website such as names, addresses, contact number, passwords, and credit card numbers.
Cookies are everywhere. Head over to the top 100 sites and click two links, you will receive a staggering 12,000 cookies. While you can delete cookies, persistent trackers will figure out a way to get back to you from elsewhere. Trackers share cookie IDs with other trackers, so even when you delete your cookies, other trackers can effectively merge all of your history for each partner.
Learn more about what are Super Cookies and how to get rid of them.
What about Incognito Mode?
Incognito browsing or private browsing will keep your parents, spouse, or children from knowing the sites you visit and delete any cookies when you close the window. Essentially, incognito protects you from cookie-based tracking.
However, some trackers are starting to turn to device fingerprints where your device sends data about itself to the sites you visit and apps you use to optimize content for you. At the same time, embedded trackers can use the same data to create a fingerprint for your device, which enables them to identify you even without cookies.
Whether its cookies or fingerprints, online trackers want to track you across all of your devices continually. This is because they’re in the business of gathering and selling your data to marketing agencies or anyone who makes the highest bid for your sensitive data.
Services like Facebook and Google can see when you sign-in across devices. From an advertiser’s point of view, they’re hundreds of millions of devices that are all exchanging valuable data – making them a target for hackers and advertisers to get a hold of that data.
It is important that you must delete your google search history and remove cookies after every session to remain anonymous.
How do Online Trackers Work?
Online trackers are no different. They are ubiquitous and exist everywhere, tracking all your activity, from your work device connected to your office to your smartphone connected to the same network. Alongside this, they can map the latitude and longitude of these connections and that all of these devices share a common online behavior. Now they know that you are the same individual who is behind all of these devices.
In today’s time, consumers are expected to negotiate their own privacy by reading privacy policies and selecting appropriate services. In a recent survey, 58% of Americans said they want to have more control over what online marketers can learn about them. Since that seems to be a farfetched reality, users have come to accept they have little control.
Surprisingly, this ill practice isn’t hidden anymore, and internet users come up with all sorts of excuses to make it seem that this practice is somewhat not harming them. Justifications such as “I have nothing to hide,” and “I don’t care what happens, so long as it doesn’t happen to me” are common defenses.
Even when users say that they don’t care how their internet habits are being monitored, as long as they enjoy what they do online, they don’t really believe it. Come to think of it; everyone covers themselves with clothes for privacy.
We all have doors with locks in our homes and bathrooms, we have blinds on our windows, and we have passwords on our email and social accounts. We want our privacy both offline and online, but when it comes to things like cookies, we’ve just told ourselves that it’s marketing.
Is Online Behavioral Tracking Just Marketing?
Michael Kaczynski created the ‘My Personality’ test on Facebook, where users filled out a questionnaire based on the ocean psychological model. They created the most extensive dataset combining psychometrics and Facebook profiles ever, and with it, they were able to tell a person’s skin color, sexual orientation, religious or political affiliations, and cigarette, alcohol, or drug use.
With enough data, they could do this more accurately than a person’s own co-workers, family, friends, and partners. Companies that deal in this data have helped governments from around the world win elections, and an infamous consulting firm known as Cambridge Analytica has done the same for Brexit and the Trump campaigns.
Cambridge Analytica bought online behavioral data and combined it with other personal data to create ocean psychological models for every American. They combined this with electoral roles to learn our needs and our fears, combined with our home addresses and voting habits. The company paid for Facebook timeline ads targeting specific profiles.
Now question yourself, is this marketing, or is this manipulation? If you’re somewhat more concerned about your online privacy now, it’s a good indicator. Humans have a physiological need for privacy and fear surveillance.
Startlingly, online trackers use the same ISP as everyday internet users. This means that their online data gathering habits are also subject to receiving ads from other online trackers.
How Do I Stay Safe from Online Behavioral Tracking?
There are simple steps you can take to protect yourself from even the most sophisticated trackers.
- Make a habit of using private browsing.
- Use privacy tools such as a VPN, Tor, and encrypted email services
- Don’t give out your personal information on sites where you don’t need to (if your name and address isn’t required, no need to fill it out anyway)
- Use ad-blockers and anti-trackers
You don’t need to give up your privacy to go online. Make sure you’ve got encryption backing up your online connection to secure your internet activities from hackers and cybercriminals.