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Keeping Data Collectors at Bay


Nowadays, our actions are tracked, digitized, commoditized and analyzed by the ever-present and arguably useful technology that has shaped the past three decades.

The machines are always watching. It’s not intrusive and it’s almost never monitored by a person. Sometimes it’s convenient and many are unbothered by it, but it’s everywhere. For example: Smartphones are constantly tracking our locations; nearly everything you look at on the internet – shopping, news stories, social media – is saved, cross-referenced and shared; data collected by your fitness tracker could be used to infer facts about your health and private habits; and ever-present cameras are seemingly on every corner. Some convenience store fridges even track your eyes.

Realistically, perfect privacy isn’t possible unless you live off the grid, but even then there are limits. There are things you can do, however, to lessen your exposure without having to completely withdraw from the modern world.

Digital privacy starts with data security

It bears repeating: Locking down your accounts is the most important thing you can do to keep your information away from prying eyes, preserving your privacy and your financial security. By using complex passwords and changing them regularly, you guard against targeted attacks and limit your exposure to broader attacks against data collectors. Security experts recommend you use a password manager to keep this from becoming a chore. If you must write down passwords, keep them safe, not in the drawer next to your computer.

You should also turn on multifactor authentication for all your accounts, where possible. That makes logging in require two or more forms of identification, like a code sent via text or email message, in addition to your username and password.

Be mindful, and willing to buy

The business model for most free services on the internet involves the collecting and selling of user information. Consider shifting your email to a paid provider. You can also switch to a web search engine whose ideas about your personal privacy align with yours.

Trim your apps

Privacy activists recommend using companies’ websites instead of their apps on your mobile device to avoid giving away more personal information than you would prefer. Fortunately, most new smartphones will now ask if you want a certain app to have access to things like your contact list, the microphone and the camera.

Oatmeal raisin, shortbread or tracking?

You may have noticed that websites are now regularly asking you about your cookie preferences. Clearly, this isn’t about chocolate chips.

A cookie is a small file downloaded to your device that acts like a personal ID card. In some cases, it is used to remember the items in your shopping cart or whether you prefer to stay logged in. Cookies create a more convenient and streamlined web experience.

While a cookie can only be read by the website that created it, things like ads, social media commenting and other parts of the page are usually hosted on other sites than the page you are visiting, and they all may be collecting information from you.

Note: The European Union’s agenda-setting strength has allowed two laws, the General Data Protection Regulation and the 2002 ePrivacy Directive, to cross overseas. The regulations have no jurisdiction in the U.S., but many companies are finding it better to avoid the liability of assuming their users’ locations.

Some cookies are essential for the web to work in the ways we’ve become accustomed. Others are only used to track you. Though it can be a nuisance every time you visit a new website, you should adjust the settings to match your privacy expectations. To have those protections, you must opt out of being tracked.

Sources: The New York Times; Vox; The Washington Post; Fast Company; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Consumer Reports; NPR; Goldman Sachs; ZDNet.com

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