What are cookies?
Strictly speaking, cookies (also referred to as web cookies or browser cookies) are nothing more than small text files placed on your computer by a website. While they may sometimes get a negative reputation for being one of the methods that advertisers can use to track you, cookies actually have a wide range of uses. For example, if you’ve ever made a purchase online or clicked "Remember Me" when logging into one of your social networks, a cookie was used to make sure that the right content was delivered to you.
Cookies can generally be divided into two categories: first-party and third-party. First-party cookies are placed on your computer by the websites that you’ve chosen to visit, and are often used to customize your browsing experience. Third-party cookies are placed on your computer by websites you haven’t visited – usually advertising networks. These can be used to track your visits to any other site that runs ads from the same third-party provider. If you’re interested in blocking third-party tracking cookies, check out the additional resources below.
How do search engines find me?
Search engines have programs called "spiders" that constantly go to popular websites, index the content of each page, and then follow any links on the site, repeating this process all over the Web. Search engines record the connections between sites – as an example, if you put a link to your Twitter profile on your personal blog, search engines will "remember" that those two sites are both related to the same person. If you have a common name (such as John Smith), then it is much less likely that information about you will be at the top of any search results, unless you actively work to promote your website or online profiles.
How do I keep information about me out of search results?
There is no surefire way to guarantee that information about you will never appear in search results. However, there are some techniques that you can use to minimize the amount of information shown. Using a nickname on social networks, having a throwaway email account for commenting on blog posts, and locking down any online profiles to prevent them from being publicly viewable, are all steps that will keep you off the front page of Google.
On the other hand, you may want some information to be available while minimizing any negative or private content. While some companies may advertise their ability to control search results about you, there is no way for them to completely eliminate negative content, and you should be cautious of anyone who promises to do so. Instead, work to publish positive content that will rise to the top of search results, pushing negative content to the bottom.
What is targeted advertising?
When you browse the web, advertisers are constantly competing for you to click one of their ads over one of their competitors’ ads. In order to maximize the odds that you will click on one of their links, advertising companies try to display content that is relevant to you – for example, it’s much more likely that you would be interested in an ad for dog food if you have a pet. In order to figure out what types of products to market to you, ad networks attempt to create a profile of your browsing habits: what sites you visit, what you search for, and what city or state you’re browsing from. Over time, you may notice that the ads you see change based on what websites you’ve visited recently. As an example, you may notice more ads for fantasy sports leagues after you’ve spent time looking for stats on your favorite players.
To marketers, your targeted advertising profile is worth more than double of a non-targeted ad. In order to minimize the amount of information that advertisers retain about you, you can take precautions such as enabling Do Not Track or installing anti-tracking software in your browser.
What is Do Not Track?
Do Not Track is a setting that you can enable in your browser that tells websites you don’t want them to use third-party cookies or tracking beacons from any site you haven’t visited. Because these third-party cookies are generally from advertisers or analytics software, websites that honor your Do Not Track request are helping you avoid leaving a trail of browsing history information.
Because Do Not Track is currently a voluntary standard, it does not guarantee that you will be able to avoid tracking on any website. For more information about Do Not Track and instructions on enabling it for yourself, visit DoNotTrack.us
What is phishing?
Phishing is online fraud designed to trick you into thinking you’re communicating with a trusted source. Most commonly, scammers will mimic emails from banks, PayPal, eBay, and popular social networking sites, asking you to click a link and provide your private information. While the email may look exactly like the real thing, it’s actually directing you to a fake website run by the scammer to collect your data.
To protect yourself from phishers, never click a link in an email that’s requesting personal information. For example, if you receive an email that wants you to reset your PayPal password, enter PayPal’s web address directly in your browser instead of clicking the link. Curious about how good you are at detecting fraudulent web pages? Take the OpenDNS Phishing Quiz to find out!
Who Can See My IP address?
Your ISP will always know what IP address belongs to your computer, as well as what websites you visit and what online services you connect to. Depending on your ISP, this data is sometimes sold or shared with advertisers for marketing purposes.
The websites you visit will also know what your IP address is. Some service providers such as Gmail use this information as an additional layer of security. For example, if you normally log into your Gmail account using a US-based IP address and someone tries to log in using a Russian IP address, that can be a sign of a hacking attempt.
What information do websites collect about me?
When you visit a website, some information about your browser is necessary to display the page properly. When your browser requests a webpage, it generally gives the following data to the server that is providing the website:
- Your IP address
- What type of browser you’re using
- What Operating System your computer is running
- Any cookies on your computer from that website
- The previous webpage that you linked from
This information is generally necessary to just to properly show you the webpage you want to see. On the other hand, many websites will also implement analytics software which provides much more detailed information about your visit, including how long you stayed on each webpage, whether or not you’ve visited the site before, and if you share content from the webpage.
Analytics information is often collected so that website owners can determine what content to publish and if any parts of their sites are slow, thus giving you a more enjoyable browsing experience. On the other hand, the data may also be used to target advertisements to you. If you are researching sensitive healthcare information online, you may want to take steps to limit the amount of data that websites collect about you – see the Additional Resources for more details.
How do I safely shop online?
It may seem hard for the younger generations to believe, but online shopping (or eCommerce) is a relatively new phenomenon. As long as you take the proper precautions, shopping online is just as safe as shopping in a traditional brick-and-mortar store.
Never enter your credit card number or other personal information without verifying that the site is using an encrypted connection to prevent anyone from snooping on your transaction data – the website URL should always start with HTTPS, not HTTP, and most modern browsers will show a lock icon to let you know that the secure connection has been verified. The fewer places you enter credit card information, the better: if you make purchases on five different websites using PayPal, only PayPal will your credit card or bank account information. This will reduce the likelihood of your information being stolen.
What else can I do to maintain online privacy?
In order to increase privacy, you can surf the web using anonymous browsing tools available at http://anonymouse.org/ or http://www.torproject.org/. Use strong passwords (8 or more letters, numbers, and symbols) that don’t involve common dictionary words. Don’t use the same password across multiple sites – if hackers steal your password from one site, then they can log into all your other accounts. If you don’t want the hassle of remembering dozens of different phrases, a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password can help.
Use a separate email account for banking and purchases, and never give it out to anyone.
Privacy Protection Tip
- Understand how companies are using your information by reading their privacy policies. If you are not comfortable with how they are using your information, change your settings or find another provider.
- Exercise available privacy and opt-out options. When you create online and social network accounts, you can often opt out of allowing them to share personal information.