Part 4: Protecting yourself from online tracking

Today we understand everything we do online is tracked, recorded in databases, analyzed by software to determine detailed aspects of our lives and then used for marketing and propaganda purposes. In some cases, this information is used against our own interests.

We can minimize online – and offline – tracking by paying attention to when we are being tracked and taking steps to disable the tracking.

For example, I am typing this in a coffee shop. Until today, access to their WiFi has been open. But today they require I enter a name and email address. Providing this information provides them with a way to link my retail store purchase here with online activities (since it is a chain, it also provides a way to track my travels). I gave them a fake name and an email address that I created 30 minutes ago, specifically to avoid trackers like this.

I mention this because the key is to be mindful of when you are being tracked and pro-actively taking steps to reduce data surveillance.

Pro-actively seek out privacy settings and set them to restrictive options. Avoid giving out real contact information for places who have no need for your real contact information. Create a fictitious email and phone number for these situations. Mostly, think! Be aware of when someone is asking for information that they do not actually need – and do not give it to them.

Plus, use the right online tools with the best settings to avoid tracking.

Use the Best Browser or Plugins to Stop Tracking

Facebook (and Google and more) track you as you move about the online web using many methods including “cookie files” deposited on your computer, hidden single pixel images that link to Facebook, and through their ad network. In 2017, an estimated 44% of all online ads seen anywhere on the web were served through the Facebook ad network. Each of these ads provides an opportunity for Facebook to track which web sites you visit, which pages you visit, and even which products you may have viewed online.

The best way to avoid this tracking is to use a browser that supports privacy enhancements.

The Epic Privacy Browser has privacy features built in – as a feature. Give it a try! Plus the organization behind Epic provides a proxy server when you wish to surf anonymously.

The Firefox browser from Mozilla supports several “add ons” that reduce tracking of your online behavior.

In the Firefox browser, click on the 3 small horizontal bars at upper right of the address line to display Firefox options. Click on Add-ons. Then click on Get Add-ons at upper left, then page all the way to the bottom to find “See more add-ons”. Using the Search box, search for and install each of these add-ons:

  • Ghostery
  • Privacy Badger
  • Adblock Plus (or other ad blocker)
  • Cookie Autodelete

These add-ons work to disable tracking features used by web sites and ad networks. To some extent they overlap in their functionality, but that is okay. Cookie Autodelete automatically deletes tracking cookies when you leave a page. After installing this add on, click on the icon that appears at the right of the Address bar and make sure you have “Auto-clean enabled” set.

Once enabled, Cookie Autodelete removes all cookie files generated by pages you visit, a few seconds after you have left the page. It is common to discover that individual pages drop 30 to 100 cookie-based trackers on your browser.

Sometimes you may not want cookies automatically deleted. For example, sites that keep you logged in between visits will lose the login connection when their cookie files are deleted. To prevent auto deletion of those sites, when you visit such sites, click on the “Whitelist” option to add the domain name to a list of sites that will not have their cookie files cleaned.

Each of these add-ons can be “Enabled” or “disabled” for individual web sites. Occasionally a page may nor format correctly or the web site may say that it will not work with ad-blockers. When that happens, disable the add-on for that individual page or site and refresh the page.

Smart phone and tablet apps

The Facebook and Messenger apps are nasty and default to enabling numerous “Permissions” to access most everything on your device.These apps are privacy nightmares.

My recommendation, if possible, is to uninstall these apps and not use them on your portable device. These apps are basically enhanced surveillance tools.

If you can, uninstall these apps. If you cannot, then selectively set more restrictive permissions for each app. Definitely turn off the Mic permission. Back in 2014, Facebook said their app listened using the Microphone:

Don’t worry, though. Facebook says they’re respecting your privacy while they do this. While ambient audio is definitely being recorded, they’re not storing exactly what the microphone picks up. The new feature works just like Shazam does: it tries to match an audio fingerprint from your environment with one in its database. The goal is to figure out if you’re listening to particular song or watching a TV show like The Simpsons.

As a general rule, selectively turn off app permissions whenever you can. I found half of the apps installed on my phone ask for the “Location” permission. Many of these are specifically for tracking my location – for someone’s benefit but not mine – while some are for mapping functions and obviously, need Location permission.

41% of the top 2500+ apps in the Google Play Store act as Facebook trackers (similar to how web sites track things on behalf of Facebook). To block those apps from tracking you, go to the Google Play Store and install Adguard. Adguard is an app that works to block the Facebook trackers, not just in the browser but also from other apps. I am not sure but I think this or similar tools are available for the iPhone.

Also, install the https everywhere plugin which works to encrypt your online communications whenever possible.

Other Apps

Review the apps you have installed on your phone. Uninstall those that you are no longer using. Review the permissions of the apps that you are using – and consider setting those options to more restrictive levels.

Online Web Surfing

Use a privacy-enhanced browser, as described above.

However, your Internet Service Provider is also tracking everything you do online, and depending on which country you live in, your ISP can share your full online history with third parties.

To minimize ISP tracking, do not use their default Domain Name System or DNS lookup.

You can configure your computer to use DNS services provided by other parties, such as Open DNS, 1.1.1.1 or even Google DNS. You should also set DNS settings for your phone and tablet devices (you may need to look up online how to do this – its not obvious in Android and the method varies depending on the version of Android.)

These DNS providers do collect data but they anonymize it so it is not connected to you specifically.

Offline tracking

How many stores have you visited that offered you a Loyalty Discount Card? Just fill out this little application – where they try to collect as much personal identification as possible. Our experience is the discounts are bogus – in fact most vendors using these seem to have raised prices – and then give a discount that drops prices to where they were before they introduced their discount card!

If you fill out and use a Loyalty card give them fake information. Do not give them your real phone number or real email address. Those two items are the data base keys that enables them to sell your retail store purchase history to offline data brokers.

Break the link between your online and offline store purchases, wherever possible.

Social Media

In addition to setting privacy and sharing options, do not accept friend requests from completely random people (there needs to be some connection to you or common interests, at least). “Random connections” are an obvious and simple way for someone to intentionally spy on you as they have access to your private, “Friends-only” posts and comments.

Limit your friends to those you know in real life, or those with which you have a substantial interaction or common interests.

Periodically clean up your Friends list. For years, we believed it was important to gather as many friends as possible. Our total friend count was a badge of honor and most us were anxious to add to our friends list. Because of social media filtering, however, we rarely see posts from most friends. Do we really need this many friends?

By reducing your friends list, your news feed can become usable again. It also reduces the amount of information linked to you via networked friend graph analysis.

Do delete old posts – especially those that may be controversial. The “half life of a Tweet” is said to be 15 minutes. That means, half of all views of a Tweet occur within 15 minutes of posting in online. Tweets that are weeks or months or years old are rarely viewed and there is little reason to keep them online. You can use a service like tweetdelete.net to automatically delete all tweets older than a specified number of days.

 

Do not upload Contact lists to Instagram, Facebook and so on. The primary purpose of these contact lists is for the provider to enlarge their database, identify people connections, and learn more about you.

Afterword

In 2014, I noticed a lot of “Friends” were sharing what we now call propaganda. I knew  little about propaganda. Wasn’t propaganda what governments do during war time? Yes, it is, but propaganda is far bigger than that! We are surrounded by propaganda, which is based on specific methods designed to influence us. I started reading books and papers on the subject. I started a private blog to record my notes – I kept the blog private for a year and a half.

Eventually, one post shared on Facebook convinced me to make a public blog about social media propaganda – I first called it Occupy Propaganda – but later renamed it Social Panic. The blog is propaganda about propaganda! Specifically, about social media propaganda.

In the past two weeks, we all learned a lot about social media surveillance and propaganda. I think half the posts I made in 4 years were written in the past two weeks!

Everyone is now aware of social media’s surveillance and propaganda problems and I expect I will let my little Social Panic blog fade away.

And then I can return to more tutorials on App Inventor relate topics. I am working on something involving Fusion Tables, and possible a way to bring back functionality similar to the original TinyWebDB.

After Afterword

I said at the top of this post I wrote this while sitting in a coffee shop. At the table next to me, two people were using online tools to look up all kinds of information on their clients, figuring out how much they were worth, their current jobs, their future career growth trajectory – and how good looking they are (really). And talking about all of this while they did it – in a public cafe!

If you do not think online surveillance is widespread and potentially a problem, you are not paying attention!

 

 

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