How companies collect your private information when you browse online

digital tracking a group of people

It’s 12:00 am, and you’re surfing some favorite websites. You do a little shopping, post in a forum or two, and tweet about your day. At this point, if you sense someone peering over your shoulder, it will probably be your spouse looking for a midnight snack. You definitely won’t be thinking about electronic privacy and the personal information your computer leaves as it weaves from site to site.

Without filling in a single form, your struggle to pick between two laptops on one website is traced straight through to the final site where you purchase something else entirely. It’s easy to think of yourself as a small speck of sand in an invisible web of servers, but in order to protect your online reputation it’s important to know what traces your computer leaves on each website you visit.

This article will tell you how companies collect your private information, and how you can protect your digital privacy by explaining what sort of information websites obtain about their users, how they obtain it and ultimately what they do with that data.

Protect your Internet privacy while surfing the Web

Most Internet users feel a certain anonymity as they browse online, yet websites can collect an extensive personal profile on you within mere seconds of your clicking on a site. Information such as your location, specific address, name, email address and even phone number is obtainable.

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In addition, website owners can discover your specific shopping habits, what keywords you used to find their site and whether or not you were interested in advertisements on their pages. Marketers can reverse engineer most of this information through IP addresses, Web browser cookies and tiny image files called Web beacons or tracking pixels.

In much the same way that companies gauge the strength of their personal branding by monitoring how you watch television, the way you travel through the  Web is analyzed and tabulated into statistical data. This data allows businesses both large and small to develop new products, discover the shopping habits of their target markets and make important marketing decisions.

On one hand, without access to this information, you would find companies struggling to properly determine the interests of their mainstream online audiences. On the other hand, having your Web browsing monitored can make you feel as though your personal privacy is being invaded.

Monitor the information your computer sends out

When a user clicks on a website, a “session” begins. A session tracks you from the first page you click on until you exit the site, using IP addresses, cookies, tracking pixels, and other technologies. Web browser cookies in particular can provide a fairly complete profile of a user’s preferences, and there are three main types:

  • A session cookie expires once you close the website. These are usually used for tasks like making sure you get logged out automatically between sessions.
  • A persistent cookie remains on your hard drive for more than one session. It either expires at a set time or remains until you delete it manually. Persistent or permanent cookies can collect information about you and your Web browsing habits, adding to the store of information on each visit.
  • The last type of cookie is a third-party ad-serving cookie, which monitors your Web browsing to show you advertisements that relate to your interests. These ad cookies follow you around between sites, which is why you tend to see the same type of ads in multiple places online.

Not all Internet cookies are created equally

In general, cookies are restricted to a single domain. For example, if the site www.amazingcookies.com leaves a persistent cookie in your browser, the site www.allamericancookies.com will not be able to access it.

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However, third-party tracking cookies work around this limitation in a clever way. When a site owner places third-party ads on the site,  the actual ads are hosted by another third-party site. You don’t visit it directly, but a piece of code on the website loads the third-party cookie into your browser. If your computer accepts these third-party cookie, every site that uses the same ad service will be able to access your information. This can include detail-rich profiles with your IP address, location, shopping preferences and in some cases the means and methods in which you pay online.

Even if you disable third-party cookies, you can still be tracked using the tracking pixel technique described above. Facebook, for instance, offers tracing pixels to its advertisers so that people who visit the advertiser’s website are targeted by certain ads on Facebook.

Control your personal information online and offline

There are steps you can use to minimize the amount of personal information marketers collect about you online. Below are a few initial tips:

  • Disable third-party cookies in your browser
  • Install a tracking pixel blocking app
  • Opt out of people-search sites
  • Use an ad blocker

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