Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.
I stumbled across something horrifying on the internet a couple of days ago. Granted, the internet is chock full of disreputable content and if you know where to look or have the misfortune of landing there unexpectedly you can find plenty of permanently scarring content.
What I’m talking about here, however, is something far more mundane, yet arguably far more insidious.
While in the throes of a bout of paranoia provoked by the recent vote in Congress to repeal FCC rules that barred our internet service providers from selling our browsing histories and other data, I decided to Google myself. I soon discovered a website that accurately listed my address and a thankfully out-of-date phone number. Since this information was pulled from voter registration data, which is apparently public information in Colorado, the site hosts a searchable database of similar information for roughly 3.8 million Coloradans.
Although I should not have been surprised to come across something like this I found this site particularly galling, as basic internet common sense says to never post things like addresses and phone numbers anywhere that is publicly accessible. Finding such information less than five minutes after starting a simple search sent me into a total Ron Swanson-style meltdown. And as I ventured down the rabbit hole in an effort to purge the interwebs of unauthorized vestiges of myself I reaffirmed something else that is not surprising in the least: maintaining any sort of privacy on the internet is incredibly difficult.
When you use the internet you are immediately tracked in several ways. All of the tech giants use various forms of data-mining to build profiles on their users and then use that information to sell targeted advertisements based off searches, shopping habits and other information.
Google, for example, made over $19 billion of its $21 billion in revenue in the second quarter of 2016 from selling ads. The more information they have on you, the better they can target ads specific to your habits, thus making those ads more valuable to companies looking to sell you stuff.
If you have a Gmail account all of your emails can be combed for these purposes. If you use Google as your main search engine and are signed into your account your search history is archived, regardless of whether or not you delete it from your computer. If you use Chrome as your browser Google has a record of all the websites you visit. Go to Google Dashboard, sign in with your account and you will likely find several years worth of your internet history waiting for you.
The standard response many people have when discussing this subject is that they have nothing to hide, so why should they care?
According to Christopher Soghoian, principle technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, “we may not all be worried about the government, but there are things we may not want our employers or members of our families to know. We have curtains in front of our windows, we wear clothes, we get prescription medications, and we have components to our lives that we don’t reveal to everyone we know.”
For me, the idea that corporations are tracking my habits and using that information to make money just rubs me the wrong way. Most people are somewhat aware that these types of things take place but don’t realize the scope at which it happens. No one would be comfortable with allowing a company to install a camera in your house to analyze your habits. I view this type of tracking in a similar way.
So what can steps can you take to limit the amount of data used to track your habits without unduly restricting your use of the internet?
The easiest thing is to check your settings. Most companies allow you to opt out of certain types of tracking. Of course, as most of these companies rely on using your data in this manner, the privacy settings are usually buried to some degree and require some digging. On Google Dashboard you can delete all of the history that shows up there and opt out of future tracking. On iOS devices you can go into the privacy settings and turn on a function that limits ad tracking.
Other simple steps include logging out of your Gmail account after checking your email, browsing in incognito or private mode and refraining from signing into websites using your Facebook account.
Unfortunately, steps such as these only help to mitigate data collected by companies such as Google and Facebook. Internet service providers such as Comcast, whose claims that they will not sell your browsing history should be taken with several grains of salt, can track your internet habits in completely different ways. Check back for a future column for strategies to avoid tracking by your ISP.
Zane Womeldorph can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @zwomeldo