12 Online Privacy Questions Answered

With online privacy becoming an increasingly worrying topic we provide the tips to help you stay secure.

Privacy pressure group the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “Data brokers are companies that trade in information on people – names, addresses, phone numbers, details of shopping habits, and personal data such as whether someone owns cats or is divorced.”

You don’t have to be James Bond, or Edward Snowden, to be watched closely by shadowy groups these days.

Even big companies such as Facebook can deliberately ignore people’s requests not to be tracked. Then there is the mysterious world of "data brokers" who sell information on people.

This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, details of shopping habits and personal data such as whether someone owns cats or is divorced. The profiles are supposed to be anonymous, but some doubt whether they actually are.

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Almost all internet publishers use some form of user tracking. Companies use scripts and cookies on sites to help designers see how users move between pages, and target advertising, which in turn keeps sites free.

While this is, in theory, anonymous, it can be, as one privacy activist describes it, “eerie”.

Facebook (and many other big websites) collect information from companies which may mean that the network “knows” things you may not wish it to such as medical conditions, marital status, financial status etc. For Facebook, it’s simply a way to target adverts.

This year, the social site added hidden tracking pixels in its ubiquitous Like button to track users everywhere across the web; even outside of Facebook pages
This year, the social site added hidden tracking pixels in its ubiquitous Like button to track users everywhere across the web; even outside of Facebook pages

For most of us, the result of this collection of billions of pieces of data, and the fact that companies sell it around the world is barely visible. It means a few changes to the adverts served alongside the pages we visit.
The problem is that “opting out” of being watched is hard when many third-party data brokers are unknown to the public and invisible to consumers. But there are steps you can take if you want one browsing session to be less visible, for instance, or need to keep a business conversation secret.

 Can I see who is watching me?

Mozilla offers a free tool called Lightbeam for the Firefox browser which offers a visual representation of companies “watching you” as you browse the web. Visiting merely one or two sites attracts the attention of third-party advertising services, such as DoubleClick. A browsing session rapidly becomes a network of circles (visited sites) and triangles (other companies monitoring you).

The tool allows users to block any site or tracker service. Mozilla says the software, still under development, is “a Wizard of Oz moment for the Web, where users can collectively pull back the curtain to see its inner workings.”

What’s the easiest way to “be invisible”?

The quickest and easiest fix is to use Incognito or Private browsing. You will still be followed by trackers as you browse, but the profile that’s built up disappears the moment the window is closed. This does not mean that you are truly private, of course. Despite the cookies used to identify you dissappearing and your browsing history vanishing, your IP address can still be traced as having visited a particular website. Setting your browser to delete cookies on closing also helps - but it is not a silver bullet.

 What if I need to be REALLY private?

There are a huge variety of browser plug-ins built to warn of tracking, or increase your control over scripts and cookies. NoScript, Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus are all effective, and free. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers its own - Privacy Badger, which integrates the functions of several of these add-ons.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a ten-minute guide to hardening browsers against ad-tracking tools via their website.

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What if I want to make sure no one can see what I do?

The Tor browser

, available free for various devices including PCs and Android phones, is the choice of the truly paranoid - but it’s much slower than normal browsers.

Designed in part by U.S. government agents, it ‘bounces’ data around 5,000 computer relays as it travels both from and to your PC, so (in theory) you are untraceable. It also allows users to access “hidden” sites, with the .onion suffix, which cannot be accessed via other browsers. It’s used by political activists such as Syrian bloggers, but also plays host to some of the internet’s most unpleasant content such as child pornography and drug markets.

Can I tell if a website is using large amounts of tracker technology?

Even without using browser tools such as Lightbeam, you can sometimes tell when a site is tracking you. On so-called ‘click bait’ news sites, the pages often link to so many third-party advertising services that they take far longer to load. This is a sign tracker software is being employed. In Britain, sites are obliged to warn browsers that cookies are used to store information on visitors. If you see this warning, you are being tracked.

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 How can I control the use of my data?

Browsers usually have a “Do Not Track” button built in and you should ensure it’s set to instruct sites not to track you. Sadly not all websites and services comply. Facebook, for example, ignores it, as it claims the phrase is not fully defined. It will often prevent honest businesses from harvesting data, but those are not the businesses most users worry about.

What can I do to limit the amount people know about me?

Data brokers also use freely available information to “top up” profiles so it pays to control what you share online, on social sites, or on blogs, as a first line of defense. This can even save you money. For instance, if a profile showed an interest in motorcycling, perhaps information available in a Facebook ‘Like’,  it could lead to a rise in your health insurance premiums.

What can I do about Facebook?

The only way to control Facebook is to use its own privacy protections (a Yahoo guide can be found here). Facebook already owns a fantastic amount of data on its users, but it is an advertising business, so the more data it has, the better it can target users. This year, the social site added hidden tracking pixels in its ubiquitous ‘Like’ button to track users everywhere across the web – even outside of Facebook pages – in order to re-target ads.

The new tracking method actually ignores users’ 'Do Not Track' preference settings (the browser setting where users can choose “ask websites to not track me”), and can even track users’ browsing and activities after they have logged out of Facebook.

Should I use Facebook on my phone instead?

No. Most tracking software will work equally well on smartphone browsers as it will on PC ones. If you use apps where you sign in via a Facebook login, this allows the social network to use information from the app. In general, PCs offer more ways to control who is watching you and what they see.

Facebook App on Smartphone
Facebook App on Smartphone

What if I really, really don’t want to be watched?

If you are determined not to be watched, Tails is a very, very private solution to keeping snoops out. Although it should be noted that it is not “spy proof, as nothing is. Even if your computer is protected with every piece of software imaginable, listening devices could log your keystrokes, for instance. 

Tails is quite complex, and not advised for inexperienced PC users. It is an operating system (like Windows), but loads into your machine from a DVD or USB stick, and forces internet traffic through the anonymizing service Tor (see above). When you’ve finished, Tails deletes all data from the session. It can be used on any computer, and leaves no trace once the session ends.

What if I need to use the net for business, and keep details secret?

If you need to hold a private conversation (a business video call, for example) use a VPN. This function is built into Windows 7 and 8 and allows you to connect PCs to one another, or to corporate networks, privately. Like most data on the internet, tracker data does not go away. If you are using the internet for sensitive business emails or documents, use VPN software.

Keep your business information secret with a VPN
Keep your business information secret with a VPN

Is this technology evolving?

Yes. As more consumers use privacy tools such as Lightbeam, new techniques appear. ‘Canvas fingerprinting’ is a new technique, invisible to users, which became widespread before anyone was even aware of it. It asks your browser to render text in a font which doesn’t exist: oddly, the response from each PC is unique, like a fingerprint. The Princeton researchers who discovered it say it “shatters” current privacy tools.

One provider which uses the ‘fingerprinting’ technique, touted as a replacement for cookies for advertisers keen to track users across the web, uses its scripts in thousands of sites and reaches 97.2% of the internet population in America, according to Comscore.