In the technology business, I’m what’s known as an “early adopter.” I’m the guy who gets the new device or software early on, eager to see how it works and whether it’s an improvement on existing products. I’ve picked some winners (flat screen monitors) and losers (BlackBerry). Friends and family know to consult me before buying new gadgets since at the very least I’ve investigated them, even if I haven’t used them myself.
Of course, technical challenges go with the “early adopter” territory. Years of trying to make early-release versions of software and hardware play nice with other products has left me adept at figuring things out quickly. And that, in turn, makes me the “techie” kid in the family to my parents.
So when my father Bob Bauman emailed me the other day asking how to deal with the latest shocking news about digital privacy threats, I had an answer for him immediately.
Inactivity Is Golden … to Data Bankers
You can avoid some of the worst digital privacy threats in 30 seconds if you want to. Read on and I’ll show you how.
But first, let’s define the scope of the challenge. Imagine you receive a diagnosis of a deadly disease. You’re in shock and afraid for your future and your family. You go to the Internet and search for your diagnosis, so you can learn as much as possible as quickly as you can. Why not? Seventy-two percent of U.S. Internet users look up health-related information online.
A few moments later, as you continue your internet knowledge quest, you notice strange advertisements popping up alongside the articles you’re reading. Obscure medicines. Miracle cures. Hospital groups specializing in your disease. Oh, and ads for funeral services, as well. (I’m not making that up: It has actually happened.)
“What the?!” … you sputter, indignant.
Welcome to the brave new world of targeted advertising, where people are using your misfortune for profit … if you let them.
You DIDN’T Consent to THAT
In April 2014, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania designed software to analyze the top 50 search results for nearly 2,000 common diseases, linking to over 80,000 web pages. The results were startling: 91% of the pages passed on your request to outside companies. Medical websites such as Health.com, WebMD, the Centers for Disease Control, the Mayo Clinic and even Healthcare.gov are “basically calling up everybody in town and telling them that’s what you’re looking at,” as researcher Tim Libert puts it.
That’s because these websites make what are known as “third-party requests.” You, the first party, submit a search term (“pancreas”) to a website, the second party. The website then passes that information along to data-mining companies who assemble that information in real time and follow you across the web, using it to send advertising tailored to you … which would be nice, maybe, if you were searching for shoes, but not now. Such companies include comScore, Experian, Google, Ensighten and Microsoft, among others.
There are no laws governing their use of your personal information. Zero, zip, nada.
This isn’t always intentional. Many developers who design websites use tools like Google Analytics and social media “share” buttons on their sites because they’re free and handy. Most users, on the other hand, have no idea that these little bits of code share information about their searches with third parties.
A Simple Solution
I don’t get those sorts of advertisements — and not just because I’m healthy as far as I know. In fact I hardly see any ads, and those that I do are random.
That’s because when I surf the web, a little applet called Privacy Badger is active on my browser. I also use other apps like AVG Privacy Fix and Disconnect. They block the tracking code that the third-party data miners use to track me and generate ads for me. They install in seconds and require no settings or maintenance.
Just to be safe, I’ve also set my browser to delete all third-party “cookies” (bits of tracking code) every time I close it. I’ve set my Google account not to save my search history. And if I’m really doing something delicate, like searching for information on the National Security Agency, I use incognito mode.
I’ve been doing this for a while now, and it hasn’t affected my Internet experience at all … except, of course, I don’t get hassled by companies trying to make money off my privacy.
You’re only a few clicks away from joining me.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor