Safety on the internet is much like safety out in public. Don’t share personal information with strangers, be wary of suspicious activity, and always be ready to defend yourself if the need arises. However, the difference on the internet as opposed to real life is how easy it is to leave information behind or have it stolen.
A digital footprint can get quite detailed, so it helps to evaluate it every now and then to see what can be reduced. It can come as a shock just how much information about a person gets gathered by the companies whose services they use.
Google is a company that has a very wide reach in the lives of many. It provides some of the most commonly used services for browsing, sending/storing files, and keeping in touch with others. Google is also integrated into just about every smartphone company’s products in the form of Android and its branches. It comes as no surprise, then, that using a company’s services open you up to them.
“Generally, if a company is giving something away, you’re the product,” says Professor Zach Kissel of Merrimack’s Computer Science Department.This is evident in how Google (and just about every other company) makes up for free services by generating ad revenue off of its users.
The ads are tailored to the individual over time through Google’s ad service creating a separate user profile for them behind the scenes.
“Currently all major computer companies try to learn as much as they can about their users, and most users are more than happy to give away that information,” Kissel added.
It is possible to check out this ad profile by visiting adssettings.google.com and scrolling down the list of assumptions Google has made about the owner of the currently logged-in account. It goes into age, location, family status, interests, habits, guesses what car you drive, and many other aspects of who it thinks you are. Not all of it is perfect, and it ranges from scarily accurate to laughably misinformed, but for most of the guesses, it’s the former.
There are means of limiting the information that is collected about you. There’s a toggle on that webpage to turn off ad tracking, but with all the other services that do the same thing, this is more of a placebo. Results will come in the form of barriers you put up yourself.
One of the easiest things you can do is switch browsers. A few of the most common browsers are Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, and Safari. All of these are closed-source and owned by some of the biggest companies out there. This is not recommended if you are conscious about where you leave your tracks.
“Google Chrome, while fast, has somewhat fewer default privacy features; your best bet out of the box is [Mozilla’s] Firefox,” Kissel said when asked for a browser recommendation. Firefox has the advantage of being open-source, so there is nothing the program can hide from you in regards to how it works or what it can do. He also brought up a browser plugin by the name of Privacy Badger, which helps to block third party trackers on the sites you visit. That combination is a solid start to greater security when browsing.
Aside from browsing, photos are a big source of location tracking. Kissel warns that “if you have your phones GPS on at the time you take a photo, there is meta-data [called EXIFdata] in the picture that tells anyone where the photo was taken, when the photo was taken, and who took the photo … if I upload a photo, I remove the EXIF data.”
It is probably already known that photos uploaded to Instagram and other social media outlets have the option to be tagged with the location of the image. These services can even put the location in for you because they’re reading the location right off of the photo’s file.
It’s important to monitor and protect your identity online. Make sure you trust where you go and take measures to clear your traces. Think of the latter like cleaning out your trash bin every once in a while.