Who Is Watching You Online?

Humor newspaper The Onion ran a story last year alleging that Google offered citizens a chance to permanently opt-out of having their lives monitored online. If you chose to opt-out, Google would send their minions to your house, remove you from your home and relocate you to a remote concentration-camp like location with no electronics and no contact with the outside world. 
While The Onion article was an obvious spoof, Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said that we can soon count on having “no anonymity” online. Soon appears to be now. This month, Facebook added a feature, Places, that tracks users’ physical locations, and automatically opts in every single user (translation: if you use Facebook and haven’t changed the settings, it’s possible a stranger can see where you are. Right now.).

At the same time, the Wall Street Journal concluded a five-part series on Internet privacy, called “What They Know.” The Journal set up a computer with special tracking software to monitor the placement of cookies, beacons, and other monitors as they surfed the web; the results of their investigation sent shock-waves through online communities. 

WSJ discovered that the average website places no fewer than 64 tracking devices on your computer (even WSJ places 60 files on readers’ computers). The worst offender,, set the record with 234 tracking files per personal computer. Surprisingly, the safest site was Wikipedia, with zero tracking files—the only website of the 50 WSJ surveyed that declined to monitor your movements online. 

The lesson in all of this is that privacy is no longer a passive thing. We cannot prevent strangers from learning personal information simply because we do not actively decide to share it with them. Everywhere we go on the Internet, search engines, websites, social media, targeted ads, and other sites monitor and document our activities. 

Of course, not all of this is bad—cookies can provide us with personal book selections at Amazon, for instance, or remember passwords to frequently used websites. But most data gathers are taking far more personal information than our book preferences. Here are some key steps you can take to guard your privacy, and a few resources to help protect personal information online. 

Change your web browser settings. Whether you search online with Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, or Firefox, most web browsers have restricted privacy settings. For particularly sensitive searches, you can go into Private Viewing mode or reject all cookies. Be forewarned that restricting cookies is a pain; websites like Facebook and online email won’t work without them.

Follow this step-by-step guide at the WSJ to improving privacy with your web browser. 

Create strong passwords. Remembering the dozens of passwords the average user needs to manage accounts online leads to duplication: It’s much easier to remember one or two key words. But it’s that much easier for hackers too, so consider following the steps Slate technology writer Farhad Manjoo outlines in his excellent article, “Fix Your Terrible, Insecure Passwords (In Five Minutes).” Use acronyms, numbers and symbols, and change those passwords frequently.

Don’t be careless about your location. Turn off Facebook’s Places (how to here), and if you do want to use Facebook with most of the privacy settings off, remember that you are broadcasting to the world. Just as with Twitter, think twice before posting about upcoming vacations or daytrips. If you take and post photos of your home or neighborhood with your cell phone, be sure to disable the geotags so that others online can’t discover your location through the coded latitude and longitude information in the photo. For more details on how to do that, visit here

Be cautious when “friending” government-run social applications, or websites that partner with the U.S. government. Twitter has already entered into an agreement to catalogue every tweet for time immemorial with the Library of Congress. Other government websites, such as the White House, are required by laws governing the presidential papers to preserve online activity. This means that if you “friend” the White House on Facebook or follow their Twitter feed, your comments will become part of the permanent presidential record.

Don’t give away your information. Don’t enter contests online or participate in other “fun” activities that require you to surrender information; the benefits you’ll receive compared to the information you’ll provide data hunters makes it a poor trade-off. It’s the same concept as providing email addresses and phone numbers at the cash register when shopping. Whether online or in person, you’re visiting a store to buy stuff, not sell it—don’t give away your personal information. 

From basic web searches to your bank account, everywhere you go online your actions are monitored. Just as you lock up your house or place valuables in a safety deposit box, protection online requires thought and vigilance. Your privacy is your responsibility: know your vulnerabilities and be diligent about online security. 

Perhaps the best safety-tool online is simply acknowledging that there is no such thing as complete privacy. Whatever you do on the Internet, it’s likely someone else will know about it soon.