Online privacy is a big topic these days. Many people have heard about potential privacy issues with big name players like Facebook, Google, and the NSA. However, your privacy may be at risk in less obvious places, ones that you should be aware of…
Social Share Buttons
The web is plagued with social share buttons. On the one hand, they’re a wonderful innovation that has really helped to speed the spread of information across the Internet. On the other hand, some companies have found a way to use these same buttons to track users and build profiles on them.
The thing is that social share buttons can track your data even if you don’t click them. As long as they load with the page, they’re live. As you hop from website to website, these social share buttons can track your browsing habits and that data can be tied with your social networking accounts.
Online Dating Profiles
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that online dating websites track your profile data. It makes a lot of sense, actually, and many people are unfortunately blind to it. The more you fill out your profile, the greater the chance of finding a match. Because of this, online daters are quick to fill in as much information as they can without second thoughts.
Background services on these websites are put in place to capture your input. It’s a problem that exists beyond online dating, but this deserves a special mention here because people tend to forget that completing a profile means giving up a lot of personal information.
To be clear, not all of these trackers are malicious. Some companies want to sell you something, sure, but others just want to help you find people and places that may interest you. Either way, you should be wary of online questionnaires in general as they might be building a profile based on your answers.
Disqus is a popular commenting platform that many websites use due to its streamlined nature and flexibility. It removes a level of anonymity because any website using Disqus must hook into its centralized database of accounts. This might be good for keeping civility and maximizing convenience, but not so great for privacy.
Disqus can track your browsing behaviors across websites that use the service. In extreme cases, this data can be combined with other third-party tracking data to peel back further levels of anonymity, revealing more about you as a person. By taking part in Disqus-based discussions, you’re granting them permission to do this.
I’m a big fan of Google’s beautiful webfonts and James has written about why it’s awesome and how to start using Google webfonts on your website. However, there is a privacy-related drawback to using them.
In most cases, websites don’t host these free fonts locally; instead, they load the fonts directly off of Google’s servers. This means that Google could potentially collect analytics on the website’s viewers, which could be a troublesome issue for privacy freaks. Information being collected is limited, but it’s being collected all the same.
What Can You Do About It?
It’s been mentioned before that anonymity on the Internet is impossible. However, different degrees of anonymity do exist and it is in your best interest to protect your online privacy as best as you can. Several ways exist to do this.
Use the Tor network. Onion routing is one answer to the privacy pitfalls of the mainstream Internet. Is it a perfect solution? No, but it’s a step in the right direction. Going “off the grid,” so to speak, will help put an extra layer of protection between you and any services that try to track your browsing. Fortunately, we have a guide to getting started with Tor.
Use private browsing. Nearly all browsers today have the option of browsing in private mode. Of the many benefits to private browsing, the greatest is “cookie proofing.” Disallowing cookies is a good way to prevent a lot of tracking services from working correctly.
Always log out. As mentioned in the sections on social share buttons and Disqus, staying logged in to a particular service means it can track your activity across many websites. To mitigate these problems as much as possible, always log out of a service when you’re done with it. Fortunately, private browsing will handle this for you.
Use privacy plugins. Ghostery and NoScript are popular plugins that can fend off unwanted third-party scripts. They have some downsides but there’s no denying that they’re effective. In addition, you’ll want to check out these Firefox privacy addons and these Chrome privacy extensions.
It comes down to this: privacy is a big deal and even the most innocent activities can be tracked by third-party services. Tracking isn’t always done for malicious purposes but even so it isn’t the most pleasant concept. Be aware that tracking can happen in the unlikeliest places and take measures to protect yourself.
What other seemingly innocuous activities are tracked? What steps do you take to guard yourself against it? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!