Sunday, May 06, 2012

TED Talks: Tracking the trackers

Not specifically related to my personal self-education journey, however I was compelled to write a quick post on how you are being tracked without your knowledge. This is scary stuff, particularly if you have kids.

In his presentation "Tracking the trackers", Gary Kovacs discusses how you are being followed today by advertisers in the name of personalizing your web experience.

A few weeks back, my wife mentioned how she was seeing a particular trend in the ads that were being displayed while when was on the internet. In her case she kept seeing ads for Disney Cruises, Hyatt Hotels and a few other travel related items.

Ad personalization is fine and in many cases helpful. However I do not wish to be tracked by anyone. Not that I am doing anything wrong or illegal, but this is not information that I am knowingly giving away and I do not know who I am giving it too and their intentions.

It is not too far fetched to imagine a scenario where I upload some family photos, blog about a vacation, etc. In unrelated use of various websites, I then research some property tax info, update my vehicle registration and perhaps do some shopping at the local Home Depot. With the trail of user behavior left behind on various web servers, it would be theoretically possible for an unknown person of company to create a profile on me: I have 2 kids (from my photo sharing), drive a 2005 Chevy truck (from my car registration), own property in a specific location (from my tax research). In addition, all of the about parties can potentially share data with each other and know where I actually live, based on my IP address, etc.

I am not comfortable with this, further, when they start tracking my kids activity I get very upset, very quick.

Time to fight back, Gary Kovacs mentions a browser plug in called Collusion. This is a great tool for visualizing who is tracking you. Here are some additional tips for actually blocking the tracking behavior:
  1. Highly recommend NOT using Internet Explorer or Apple Safari. These are the default browsers for Windows and Mac respectively. I do not find that either has particularly good extensibility capabilities. Stick with either Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox
  2. Collusion: As Gary mentioned in the video, this tool will help you visualize how you are being tracked and likely make you feel quite angry in a short amount of time.
    • For Google Chrome, the current version is 1.3.0, go to the Chrome webstore and search for Collusion or do a Google search for "Collusion for Google Chrome"
    • If you use Firefox, the current version of 0.16.3, go to the and search for Collusion or do a Google search for "Collusion for Google Firefox"
  3. Ad Blocking
  4. Opt out of Google tracking
  5. Clean up after yourself  
    • From time to time you will want to use a tool like CCleaner to tune up your PC or Mac. You can also use this tool to clear out the cookies from all your browsers.
    • In addition, you can selectively choose which cookies you want to keep and which ones your want to ditch
As time allows, I will try to make some simple videos on how to configure all these tools. Hopefully to make it easier for everyone to take control of their privary.

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