Joel Stein’s cover piece for TIME this week is about online data mining—how marketing companies know so much about you just by simply tracking your web surfing habits. It’s an interesting and/or terrifying read, depending upon your disposition. Whatever the case, there are several quick and easy steps you can take to prevent your browsing habits from being tracked.
Opting Out of Ad Networks
If you fall into the terrified category, here’s a quick list of some of the companies that have been amassing information about you all this time and where you can go to tell them to stop. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’ll get you well on your way to scrubbing your online existence clean.
Network Advertising Initiative
Oh man, strap in for this one. The NAI Opt-out Tool shows you all the big-name marketing companies that have installed tracking cookies on your computer and lets you opt out of some or all of them in one fell swoop.
NAI member companies can start collecting data on you again in as little as five years, so if you’re really dead set on cutting them off once and for all, you’ll need to throw yourself a little opt-out party every so often.
PrivacyChoice.org has an enormous list of companies that track people’s surfing habits and collect associated data. You can also see what some of the bigger players know about you already. Some of the larger online marketing companies and their individual opt-out links are listed below.
Google’s Ads Preferences site lets you add and remove categories related to “the interests and inferred demographics that Google has associated with your cookie.” Or you can just opt out altogether.
Google thinks I like shoe shopping, for some reason. It got all the other geeky stuff right, though. Bonus points for identifying me as a male.
I’m done putting the exclamation point after Yahoo. The company’s just not that exciting any more AND it makes for awkward apostrophe use.
So in that spirit, head over to Yahoo’s (ahhh) Ad Interest Manager to toggle which types of ads you’ll see on Yahoo sites. Or opt out.
Yahoo’s got my interests pegged down pretty well except for thinking I’m interested in politics. It knows I’m a male, which is good, but it thinks I still live in Minnesota. That was like four years ago, Yahoo.
You know when you’re reading an article and one of the words looks like a link, but when you hover over that link you get a dumb little pop-up ad? That’s Vibrant Media.
Opting out won’t prevent those links from appearing, but it’ll at least prevent Vibrant Media from collecting data about you.
If you’re interested in blocking the ads themselves, there are several browser extensions and hacks that you may want to check out.
I’m going to opt out of this registry purely on principle. BlueKai thinks I’m a female and, even worse, thinks that I’m interested in public relations.
Before you opt out, you can see how BlueKai sees you by clicking here.
Apparently Exelate and Bizo are in cahoots because my Exelate interests return a check mark in the “Bizo – High Net Worth” box. I’m now very interested to know what Bizo’s definition of “high net worth” is and feel I should help them to redefine it in the interest of accuracy.
Or maybe I’ll just opt out.
If you don’t trust (or you don’t want to deal with) all the individual online marketing companies, there are several browser-based solutions you can use to keep your activities to yourself.
Each browser has its own privacy settings and, generally, cranking those settings up to the highest level can stop a lot of potential tracking activity dead in its tracks.
Blocking cookies—especially third-party cookies–is an easy way to prevent yourself from being tracked. Certain websites rely on cookies to function properly, though, so an across-the-board cookie crumbling won’t always be ideal. But it can’t hurt to try and you can always revert back to lower settings.
Here’s how to find the cookie settings for each popular web browser.
Alternatively, you can use your favorite browser’s private browsing setting, which will theoretically leave no trace of your goings-on. Just make sure all your extensions are turned off and make peace with the idea that truly private browsing hasn’t quite been perfected yet (see this Ars Technica article).
Here’s how to browse privately with your browser of choice:
And last but certainly not least, you can employ any number of browser-based extensions to undermine various marketing ploys.
Here’s a short list of some of the more well-known extensions:
Don’t Be a Stranger
If you’ve got your own tips and tricks for covering your tracks online, please leave them in the comments section below.
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