The Crunch: Earlier this year, Congress repealed FCC rules designed to prohibit internet-service providers from selling user data, such as browsing history, to third parties, including advertisers. The fierce debate and significant news coverage of that decision showed the intense interest that the public has in online privacy. Without those rules in place, the responsibility now largely falls on internet users to protect their privacy in an age when sites and searches can be easily — and legally — tracked. Selena Deckelmann, an expert with Mozilla, maker of the web browser Firefox, says steps like private browsing, consistently updating settings, and shutting off third-party cookies are all part of improving online privacy — and maintaining control of personal information.
Most internet users have had that eerie feeling they’re being followed online, and, the truth is, they are. When an item viewed on one site shows up later in an advertisement on another site, it’s not a coincidence — it is tracking and targeted marketing at work.
Selena Deckelmann, the Director of Engineering at Firefox Runtime, said most people realize they are being tracked while browsing online under similar circumstances.
“Typically, as an internet user, you notice tracking when you see the same ad following you across sites, apps, browsers, and devices,” said Selena. ”It can give a creepy feeling to online surfing. Luckily there are things you can do about it.”
According to a Pew survey, nearly 60% of internet users surveyed have noticed targeted ads, and, unsurprisingly, 68% said they do not like being tracked online.
Today, ISPs and brands use a variety of tricks and tools to collect data on specific consumers and tailor ads to them. Whether it’s cookies, device fingerprinting, or tracking locally stored objects, companies are constantly innovating ways to gather and use data to market to consumers.
That tracking was made easier when Congress stripped away added consumer privacy protections in early 2017, paving the way for ISPs and companies to not just gather data for themselves, but also sell that information to others. For consumers who want to take control and protect their online privacy while browsing, a variety of options exist. The list includes using a variety of passwords, frequently checking and updating privacy solutions, blocking third-party cookies, and using a private browser.
By tweaking a few settings in a browser like Firefox, anyone can limit the flow of personal information to the sites they visit.
What Companies are Able to Track and Collect Today
Selena said there are three significant data collection practices out there today.
First, there is incidental collection because of tracking cookies, or small bits of data stored by a website related to your activity.
“Think of cookies like little breadcrumbs that a website can use to figure out what you were doing from one page load to the next,” Selena said. “There are cookies that help you login to a site and stay logged in while shopping or commenting and cookies that help a site determine which kinds of ads it is going to show you.”
Those cookies then have two sub-categories: first-party and third-party.
“First-party cookies are used by the site you’re currently visiting,” Selena said. “It will serve personalized ads based on information the site has about you that you explicitly gave to it when you signed up. Third-party cookies are the ones advertisers use to track the websites you visit and target their marketing.”
The third significant type of data collection online is the information users volunteer while using a social media account, mobile app, or website.
“We voluntarily give away a lot of information without realizing it,” Selena said
Also, ISPs can collect data at the network level. ISPs collect and track information on website visits, searches, apps, and physical location, and more. For the most part, that information allows advertisers to target their marketing with specific criteria on where their ads will pop up, often based on sites a person has visited or apps they have used. Experts say that common business relationships between ISPs and advertisers do not include divulging personal information on an internet user.
However, a University of Washington study concluded that, by spending only $1,000 on platforms such as Facebook, Google AdWords, MediaMath, Centro, or Simpli.fi, a person could access such personal information as the apps on your phone, your home address, and your current location.
The study raised concerns about personal privacy that go beyond the standard practice of using data for targeted marketing. Luckily, internet users do have several options to improve online privacy.
Steps Consumers Can Take to Protect Themselves
Internet users can learn a few good habits to curb collection of their data. First, when in non-private browsing sessions, cookies should be routinely cleared. As for the network collection by ISPs, Selena says it is important to be aware of your surroundings.
“The same way that you close the curtains on windows in your home, ensure that your online browsing is protected from people peeking in by ensuring all websites you connect to use encryption — or “https” — which you can see as a little green lock icon in your URL bar.”
Another option is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). When connecting to the internet through a VPN provider’s server, the data moving between your computer, phone, tablet, or other device and the server is encrypted. That hides it from the ISP, although the VPN provider may still have access to some of your browsing activities, Selena said.
The Tor browser is another option for securing privacy. As explained on the Tor website, the browser “protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world.” That prevents any third party from finding information on site visits or physical location.
As for staying on top of the information we deliberately give to apps and websites, Selena says it is important to frequently check and update privacy settings in all commonly used tools and apps.
“Also, think before you type data into a service; do you really want that data to be public?” she said.
Beyond just privacy concerns, Selena also mentioned security as another key to keeping tabs on personal information. One key to security is strong password management. Selena recommended a two-factor authentication (2FA) as an extra layer of security. With 2FA, users may receive a text, email, or call to confirm their identity before a login is allowed.
“This will help you stay secure in the event a hacker discovers your password,” Selena said.
Those concerned with security may also consider a password manager, so they can have unique passwords for each service they use, store them securely, and not have to recall each one from memory.
Firefox: Protecting Consumer Data and Security
Selena said Mozilla feels internet users should be able to choose how much information they do or do not share while browsing,
“In the same way that you can walk into a store and browse, but not give your home address just to walk in the door, we think you should be able to do the same thing online,” she said. “And we’ve developed a few tools to help you do that.”
Mozilla recently launched a single-purpose mobile browser, Firefox Focus, which is available on iOS and Android, for users who want to browse privately on the go.
“Focus improves the privacy and performance of your mobile browsing experience by blocking analytics, social, and advertising trackers,” Selena said
Desktop users can employ private browsing with tracking protection mode in Firefox to automatically erase sessions, web history, and block hidden trackers trying to follow you around the web.
Selena also recommended the Lightbeam web extension to learn more about the first- and third-party site interactions.
“Using interactive visualizations, Lightbeam shows users the relationships between these third parties and the sites they visit,” she said.
“Mozilla believes in giving people choice, control, and privacy on the Web,” Selena said. “Your personal information is valuable, including your search histories, browsing habits, and online activities. You have a choice to do something about it.”