Data Tug-O-War: How Are Companies Keeping Tabs on You Online?

In a world where online tracking has not only become commonplace, but also accepted by many users and businesses alike, the future of privacy seems uncertain. As our lives are increasingly lived in the digital realm, our activities and the trail of data they leave behind have spawned a multi-billion dollar online advertising industry. These digital breadcrumbs aren’t just restricted to activities on the Internet. For mobile users, technologies such as location-based tracking connected to global positioning systems (GPS) can pinpoint users, allowing advertisers to target potential shoppers just as they enter physical stores. Some see this as convenience, others as an invasion of privacy. As finger pointing ensues, questions about data privacy and who has rights to data are still unanswered. Despite recent policy changes, digital advertisers are continually looking for new ways to monitor your activities for the sake of personalization, but what does this really mean for consumers?

Many savvy mobile users are wising up to the use of cookies to track user preferences and browsing histories online, and some companies like Mozilla are even following suit with cookie blocking options. But, as this data tug-o-war escalates, companies at the other end of the rope are responding with new and even harder-to-avoid methods of information collection.

Earlier this year, web properties like MSN and Hulu were caught using so-called ‘Super Cookies’ to thwart users’ attempts to block tracking. These new super cookies, developed by Microsoft and Google, are able to track users in their searches anywhere and everywhere, whether it’s a smartphone, PC, game console, or Smart TV. There’s almost no way for consumers to hide their searches from companies looking to follow consumer habits for marketing purposes. Super cookies are stored in a different place and are therefore much harder to find and delete—not to mention they can even evade the detection of the built-in cookie delete function on almost any Internet-connected device. Despite an overwhelming number of consumers opposing the use of more robust monitoring tools, many web marketing and advertising businesses still refuse to follow industry best practices, citing their “right to track.”

With the cookie dilemma in mind, the next frontier in web activity tracking leaves these not-so-sweet tools behind in favor of authenticated tracking. Some of the most popular companies today no longer need to rely on cookies to track activity because consumers have already voluntarily signed in to use them. The act of logging into Facebook to update a status, checking email in Gmail, or downloading a new mobile app on your phone creates a new kind of tracking process and allows these companies to see every move you make while signed in. However, the implications of authentication tracking go far beyond a single action—where users can now be monitored across devices and platforms. These types of identifiers are now being used to collect and ascribe a great deal of data about people’s online and mobile habits, that may or many not be used in the right way by the parties who hold it.

One of the most important questions for mobile users is how the increased use of authentication-based tracking will impact privacy. Authentication tracking almost seems like choosing the lesser of two evils: many companies knowing something or big companies knowing everything. For mobile users, this has additional implications, as not only are your movements on the web tracked, but also in respect to the location of where those activities are happening in physical space. It could, however, in some respect give mobile users more control over who sees their information, as this more concentrated approach may actually be beneficial for avoiding the prying eyes of digital marketing firms and other third-parties by limiting tracking capabilities to the companies users have chosen to have a direct relationship with.

For many consumers, personalization wins out over privacy, with 64% of Accenture survey respondents choosing a more tailored experience in favor of not being tracked. Despite these results, personalization can still be a double-edged sword and for those who are concerned about the level of information being stored on them, there must be a way to gain the upper hand. Companies will always be looking for the next loophole to exploit when it comes to tracking, but being an educated user on any Internet-connected device will help you to stay one step ahead. Below are some tips to help keep your online activities private—whether it’s on a laptop, tablet, or mobile device—and limit the amount of information third parties can collect.

  • Manage app permissions. Third-party apps, especially games or entertainment apps, should have limited access to personal data such as location or social networking sites. You can allow or deny these permissions in the Settings menu of your mobile device.
  • Location, location, location. Be aware of which mobile apps can track your location and review the permissions accordingly. Using Yelp maps to get to that new ice cream place is great, but it’s also important to limit how and when your location can be tracked with a mobile device.
  • Don’t leave your browser cookies lying around. Review privacy permissions in your browser of choice. In Google Chrome on your mobile browser, you can select the ‘Do Not Track’ option in the Settings as well as tell it to clear browsing data after exiting. To do so, click on the Settings cog at the top right of the Google search screen, and then select Browsing. From this menu you can enable/disable On-device history and/or Clear on-device history, as well as Clear third party cookies. Try to get into the habit of periodically clearing both your history and the cache for cookies. From the same Privacy menu you can also activate or turn off Location Reporting and delete your Location History.
  • Go incognito when surfing the web. Aside from actively clearing browser history, Google Chrome offers the Incognito window for anonymous browsing on mobile devices. It’s important to note that browsing in incognito mode on mobile keeps Google Chrome from storing only information about the websites you’ve visited. It does not stop the third-party sites from recording your visit. Any files saved to your computer or mobile devices will still remain. Sites visited here will not show up in your history and won’t leave other traces, like cookies, after closing the window. A number of apps in Google Play also offer private search functions.
    • Important to note for iOS users: regular and incognito windows still share local storage, which is used by sites to store files on your device or to provide offline functionality. This means the same sites can always access their data in this storage on you from both regular and incognito tabs.
  • Always remember to log out. While certain companies may still be able to track your activities when logged into various mobile apps or sites, it’s crucial to remember to log out once you have finished. Forgoing the ‘remember me’ function on mobile devices is not only good for security, it limits the number of avenues with which companies can monitor you by.
  • Get comprehensive security on your devices. Protect your device and your information from becoming exposed due to unsafe online searches. McAfee® Mobile Security comes with many features to help protect your mobile devices from a variety of threats and overzealous apps that want more information from you than they should have.

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