Don’t Like Being Tracked Online? Here’s What to Do

January 2014

I’m sure you’ve heard about businesses and advertising networks tracking our online activities. Why do they do it? Primarily, the trackers want to sell you more goods and services they think you might like or they want to sell your name to a third party that will target you with ads and offers. Like me, you may feel that such relentless tracking and information collection invades your privacy. Until recently, there was little you could do to stop or at least lessen such tracking. Now, Do Not Track efforts may provide you some ability to control this practice. This report provides more information about what you can do.

What Is Online Tracking?

Tracking of your online activities is called behavioral tracking. Entities doing the tracking collect information about an individual’s activities, interests, preferences, and communications over time. Behavioral targeting uses the collected information to show you specific advertisements and to market goods or services. In the past, when behavioral tracking primarily used cookies, it was fairly easy to control tracking by blocking, deleting, or limiting these cookies. Now, however, tracking uses many methods that are harder to detect and control.

Not only are desktop and laptop PCs susceptible to tracking but so are smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Even some brick-and-mortar stores are collecting information using mobile phone signals for a variety of purposes. If your smartphone is configured to search for Wi-Fi networks, for example, that signal can be picked up and used to follow you through the store. If you’ve downloaded their app or given them an email address, the store may be able to match your profile with your phone.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?

  • Enable the "do not track" setting on the browsers you use.
  • Take advantage of the various security and privacy settings in your browser.
  • Turn off Wi-Fi searching and use only trusted secure Wi-Fi networks.
  • Use a search engine that doesn't track you.
  • Research apps before downloading.
  • Look at and use the security and privacy settings for every website you use.

On your computers (desktop, laptop, tablet), downloading a program you like may bring with it an “add on” that tracks your activity. For example, many annoying popup screens and ads may result from such “secret” downloads. Mobile apps can also be used for tracking. Some add-ons and apps collect and report data that you wouldn’t expect. For example, the FTC recently settled with an flashlight app developer because the app was reporting, unknown to users, their location and device ID to advertising networks and other third parties whenever the app was launched.

What’s Being Done to Help Control or Limit Tracking?

To help us better control this activity, the World Wide Web Consortium is working with many parties to create an international “Do Not Track” process. Do Not Track is a way of protecting online privacy but it is not a registry like Do Not Call, so consumers do not need to sign up. Do Not Track efforts have taken a 2 prong approach.

  • The first strategy creates browser settings that you may activate to let every website you contact know that you do not wish to be tracked.
  • The second strategy is to develop rules for how companies should respond to those settings. While the rules and public policy to implement them are still under discussion and development, you can use the browser settings.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?

Here are some of the steps you can take to lessen tracking of your online activities.

1. Enable the “do not track” setting on the browsers you use. Most recent browsers have a “do not track” setting but there is no requirement that it be respected. It is up to each site and entity whether they do so. This guide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows you how to turn on Do Not Track.

2. Take advantage of the various security and privacy settings in your browser. For example, you can use the browser function that allows you to control or delete add-ons; the function is located under “tools” in most browsers. You can also use a tool such as Ghostery or Abine’s DoNotTrackMe that will allow you to block trackers.

3. Protect yourself and your data on your smartphone or tablet by turning off Wi-Fi searching and using only trusted secure Wi-Fi networks. Turn off Bluetooth when you aren’t using it. And disable location tracking unless you are using an app that needs it.

4. Use a search engine that doesn’t track you such as DuckDuckGo or Ixquick.

5. Research apps carefully before downloading. Check what permissions the app needs and why it needs them. Look at what information it collects, what it reports, and with whom it is shared. If you can’t find that information, then don’t download it.

6. Look at and use the security and privacy settings for every website you use. Review the settings periodically. These tips will help you:

Although you may not be able to eliminate all tracking, taking a little time to use these steps will help you cut it down significantly.

For More Information

Privacy in the Age of the Smartphone from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Online Privacy: Using the Internet Safely from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Do Not Track from the Electronic Frontier Foundation