Concerns about online privacy have been flooding the pages of newspaper, magazines, and websites. Regulators like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are pushing for more regulation and enforcement when it comes to protecting online privacy. The problem is that most people are unaware of how and when their personal information is being tracked and used. It's important to understand that when you log on to web sites, the developers or even thirty-party networks may be tracking your online behaviors. This allows companies to customize advertising, content, and product offers based on your interests, and trade the information without informing you. Of course, you can read the very lengthy agreements you sign off on when you first register on sites, but very few people actually do this. To protect yourself online, follow these simple suggestions:
- Change the privacy settings on your web browser and/or application. The default setting on your browser and most sites allows companies to store small bits of information, called "cookies." While cookies are great because they allow sites to remember your preferences and auto-login information, they also allow websites to track information on you. Take the time to carefully choose how much of your personal information is available to the public. Here's how to do this: In your browser (Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) go to "settings" and adjust terms like how long your history is kept and whether or not to allow cookies. Some browsers even allow you to set explicit rules, such as to block cookies that save contact info without your approval. Or you can open a window in any of the major browsers that allows you to browse in more privacy - one that will not store your history. Private browsing goes by different names for the browsers: On Internet Explorer, it's called InPrivate Browsing (go to safety menu or press Ctrl+Shift+P), on Safari (go to action/"gear" menu) and Firefox (go to Tools in Menu bar), Private Browsing, and on Chrome, Incognito (go to the wrench icon on the toolbar or Ctrl+Shift+N). On websites and applications (ex. Adobe Flash Player), you can take similar precautions. Some websites allow you to make categories, like "friends only" to limit who can see what. The bottom line: make it your decision what to opt in and out of.
- Check out privacychoice.org. This site provides information and some security options for privacy. You can use the site index to search through over a thousand websites' relevant policies and with whom they share your personal information. You can also use PrivacyChoice's tools to prevent or monitor tracking, including: TrackerBlock (directly control tracking in your browser), PrivacyMark (opt-out of targerting for companies without installing browser controls), or PrivacyChoice Opt-out Add-on (like PrivacyMark, but auto-updates and covers more companies).
- Search the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI). While you may be wary because it was formed by advertising companies (Google, Yahoo, AOL, etc.), it is doing its part by keeping consumer aware and promoting responsible business standards. The initiative makes it easy to opt out of target ads from about 50 ad networks.
- Be mindful of other online dangers, like financial fraud. Make sure to use varied and powerful passwords, update anti-virus/malware software regularly (or set it to automatic), look for sites with https (not just http in the URL address), steer clear of suspicious links, emails, and attachments (and never respond to spam), avoid using public computers to access personal information (and Wi-Fi hotspots, especially, for sensitive data), and only post information you don't mind being public.
- Check out these sites for more information: the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC)behavioral advertising page, the Center for Democracy and Technology's (CDT)Guide to Behavioral Advertising, Entertainment Software Rating Board's (ESRB)privacy resources, and the Digital Advertising Alliance's (DAA) Consumer Information page.
Unfortunately, sometimes the danger lurks closer to home than you realize. Online dangers go beyond tracking and identify theft. Help keep your kids safe by staying informed - read about Good Housekeeping's advice to help keep your kids safe online.