With the revelations of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, the cat’s out of the bag: we’re all being watched 24/7. But along with the government, we’re being followed around the web by a shadowy legion of other parties. Chief among them, and perhaps furnishing the NSA with the idea and a whole lot of data, are those big friendly sites like Google and Facebook. These avid online trackers want all that personal information for their own unnamed purposes in exchange for the “free” services they provide. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now everybody’s into it, and people are slowly becoming aware of the downside. For all that data can be used for more than just advertising. Your personal choices, the sites you visit, the searches you conduct, and the purchases you make online may have serious consequences down the road. Visits to medical websites could affect insurance coverage or rates, postings to social media might influence potential job offers, and purchasing history might limit credit.

Worst of all, these judgments about you are being made in secret based on information that you are not allowed to see or to contest. Since that data is being freely sold and traded between trackers, anything that one party knows about you may be known by others. Until such time as an electronic Bill of Rights becomes law, there’s little you can do about it. But there are a few ways that you can begin to take back control of your personal data, and the sooner the better.

Facebook, which has historically served up ads based on stuff you shared with the site, has  announced plans to significantly extend tracking of users all across the web. Like many of their “enhancements”,  users are signed up by default, and can only opt-out if they know about it. And in this case it cannot be done on-site.

Cookie monsters

One way that sites track users are by means of cookies – small files downloaded to the user’s browser that identifies them to the site. These can be quite useful and indeed, necessary, for navigating around big websites, buying items, and many other things. Yet despite the name, cookies are not intended as treats for users, but for the sites that generate them.

Following users from site to site is a major goal of these trackers in order to build up as detailed and complete a picture of users as possible. To do this, “third-party” cookies are used. These are cookies from other trackers also embedded into a page – Google Ads and Facebook Likes being the most visible examples. They can determine just which ads you see based on what those sites already know about you, and any choice you make after seeing them adds to your profile.

But many other ad companies that you can’t normally see are doing the same thing. Since they are interactive, loading them can drag out the time it takes for the page to load, sometimes to ridiculous lengths.

So it’s definitely in your interest to manage cookies, and control the advertising you’re subjected to. To stop Facebook and other sites from tracking you everywhere, you basically have to replace all those cookies with ones that tell them not to track you. Paradoxically, the very first thing you must do is accept them, all of them.

How to disable tracking:

  1. Turn off any ad-blocker programs and enable cookies. In Firefox, go to the Menu button (three stacked horizontal lines on the far right of the location bar), select Options and the Privacy panel.
  2. Under History, select under “Firefox will:” “Use custom settings from history.”
  3. Click “Accept cookies from sites” and under it, for “Accept third-party cookies“, select “Always“, and for “Keep until:“, select “they expire“.
  4. Then click “Okay“. You’re now ready to visit the Digital Advertising Alliance’s opt-out site. Opt Out From Online Behavioral Advertising is a voluntary means set up by advertisers to allow users to manage their cookies. It allows you to see what cookies are on your machine, and to allow or ask them not to track you.
    The page itself will automatically let you know if your cookies are not enabled. If you get that message, enable them before continuing. The site will take a few minutes to check and list all the cookies involved. You may be surprised by the amount and variety.
  5. Click on the name of each to see more about the company. Then, if you want to keep them from following you, click the box on the right and when done, click “Select companies“, or at bottom “Choose all Companies“. It will take a few minutes and it’s done.
  6. Finally, do not forget to go back to Firefox’ Privacy panel, and reset the controls. Leave “Use custom settings from history” as is, but under “Accept third-party cookies“, select “Never“. If you want to see if cookies are being set, under “Keep until:” select “ask me every time“. This might prove so annoying, you may want it reset it to until “they expire” or “I leave Firefox”, but this will allow you to see what you’re up against.
  7. Then click “Okay“, and you’re done.

This won’t eliminate all third-party or interest-based cookies by any means. But it’s a start, and it may also speed up page loading. In future postings, we’ll tell you how to set up ad-blocking and tracking software to further control your privacy.