How to Safeguard Your Privacy Online

As privacy issues continue to monopolize our national conversation, sparked by everything from Google’s proposed takeover of DoubleClick to Facebook’s Beacon advertising platform to warrantless wiretapping by the NSA and various other activities that bring to mind tinfoil hats and black helicopters, I’ve started to wonder: How does one attain some semblance of privacy on the Internet? For while I can live with the fact that national security concerns may warrant some invasion of privacy at some point, I am not comfortable giving up personal information as to how I think for the sake of companies and their marketing departments serving me relevant advertising.

I know I am a part of a specific targeted demographic and I realize that marketers value, above all, the ability to understanding the basic incentives of targeted demographics. Further, I realize that it is exceptionally difficult to live in society today without being classified for marketing purposes – i.e. I am a male living in Silicon Valley and working in venture capital– and that this practice has been done for years via credit card purchases, mortgage information and other sources of data. What bothers me is that gathering my personal data gives marketers access to my personal habits, which they can then analyze in an attempt to understand why I do what I do and use their conclusions to serve me up [what they hope is] more relevant advertising. And what scares me is that some people call this a feature and are willing to grant access to their private digital footprint in return for this so-called relevant advertising.

To borrow an example from a friend of mine, I don’t care if my local grocery chain store knows that skirt steak and Corona beer are usually purchased together by males between 24 and 42 years of age. However, I do care if a search engine company knows that I purchased these items at the grocery chain store at four in the afternoon on Saturday, recently bought a round-trip ticket to Argentina and returned an item to the Macy’s in Union Square last weekend. Do they serve my needs any better by inserting advertising for Niman Ranch beef, hotel discounts in Buenos Aires and Macy’s latest sale on my Facebook page? I understand why, in terms of advertising rates, this is good for Facebook, but why am I giving up my privacy for this service?

So here are some ways to regain a reasonable facsimile of privacy on the Internet — or at least attempt to give marketers the most limited amount of personal information possible. Some of these are fairly practical and easily accomplished while others, admittedly, are way off the fairway and only for the serious privacy advocates and full-blown conspiracy theorists.

Feeling Practical But Not Paranoid?

Do not use desktop search tools like Google Desktop or Microsoft Desktop Search. A full index of every keyword on your hard drive in the hands of marketers is very useful for the purposes of targeted advertising.

Do not use webmail from a service provider like AT&T, Google or Microsoft. Same reason as above, except here it applies to every email you send or receive.

Do not use browser toolbars or desktop gadgets. Both of these types of add-ons from companies like Yahoo and Google are known to gather information on your online activity for marketing purposes.

Remove all social network accounts. There is loads of good information there that can be used for targeting and correlation. At the very least, remove all personal information and have a username that does not give any clues to your true identity.

Clear your browser cookies after every session. Alternatively, only search using Ask.com and enable AskEraser. To take erasing your footprint a step further, do not accept any browser cookies by default. This additional step will make web surfing slower and more intrusive as you will have to manually accept or deny cookies. That being said, if you surf for an hour without accepting cookies by default you will become much more aware of them, and that in and of itself could prove enlightening.

Change your local username daily. Browsers and other software have been known to pass local usernames to servers as part of their operation. If your username is something like “first.lastname” this is clearly useful information for data collection purposes.

Use Opera. With Opera, you can mimic another browser’s identification string, which helps mask your browser’s settings and reduces the information that you send to a web site when you visit.

Paranoid and Happy to Admit It:

Do not make international phone calls. Even if warrantless wiretapping by the NSA does not concern you, you need to be aware of Echelon.

Do not have a home broadband connection. If you have a home broadband connection, a network service provider can map your name to your IP address to your physical location. Again, your name, where you live and your Internet activity is all useful information for marketers.

Use free Wi-Fi. If you don’t have a home broadband connection but you will still want to be connected, find a free wireless access point at a local coffee shop. To further hide your existence, every time your computer associates with a wireless access point, manually change your MAC address.

Install a host-based Intrusion Detection System (IDS) like OSSEC. Assuming that you are already using a personal firewall, anti-spam and anti-spy software, a host-based IDS will ensure your computer isn’t being used without your knowledge. For an additional level of security, you could block all Internet traffic except for HTTP (port 80) and then log and trap anything else.

If you’re not satisfied being paranoid and want to venture into the land of Ted Kaczynski, you should give up on email, not have a home phone, use a pre-paid mobile phone that you change frequently, get all of your physical mail at a P.O. box and do every transaction (including buying a home or cabin in the woods) with cash.

But perhaps you want to live in our society, write on popular blogs — even have a public profile. I do, which means that I have a public presence for marketers to analyze. But I also follow most of the practical advice that I give above, because the only way to maintain a semblance of privacy on the Internet is to take responsibility for guarding your information – to whatever degree you see fit.

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