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Practical Techie: The uncomfortable practice of tracking web user’s footprints

With all the whistle-blowing on Facebook, Instagram, about how the social media platforms track our moves, it’s wise to peek into the mechanics of it all.

True, hidden trackers called spiders, crawlers, and bots in internet lingo, are pieces of code that follow us around cyberspace. They register all our moves online, our consumer interests, the merchandise we choose, websites we visit, and so on. They slowly build profiles about the actions we take or do not. Many call it spying and spin all sorts of conspiracy theories. Yet, it’s just basic market profiling. Now… when it’s done by government security agencies, well, that’s another story.   

TRACKERS — During our daily web navigations there will always be first-party (website proper) and third-party (outside the website) trackers lurking in the background. Virtual algorithmic stalkers.

The third-party bloodhounds such as Google Analytics are the ones that usually worry us because we never know how the data they collect is finally used. They may also include WiFi snoopers, our Internet provider’s servers, and other network operators we don’t even know about that track our “likes”, or dislikes.

In good faith, the data they collect should only be for targeted advertising, metrics, and to establish social media trends. But, is our privacy at risk?

PRIVACY — The more third parties track our web life, the sharper the profile of our virtual personality turns out to be. They know our whims and consumer weaknesses. Each bit of data on us adds to the knowledge of our proclivities online and ­­— most probably — also in real life. Once all this data is expertly combined, extensive profiles about our virtual existence emerge for slick marketeers.

Now they have our locations, purchase history, browsing habits, and what we searched for in the vastness of the Web.

Eventually — and many people find this scary — we start getting deals, pop up ads about our favorite vacation spots, birthdays, anniversaries, the car we researched last year, clothes we like to wear, lack of life or funerary insurance, even sexual preferences if we prance about too much in adult sites. One’s private life suddenly begins to be clearly mirrored in a barrage of advertisements bombarded our way.  

Some social media platforms push it up one more notch and begin deciding what content we are allowed to see, even manipulate what we insist on seeing. All according to our gender, age, ethnicity, demographics, education, politics, and social interests. Now the question beckons: How can I prevent getting tracked?

WALLS — There are simple tools cybernauts can latch onto to protect one’s privacy and block web trackers. It’s not a simple feat, nor a one-shot deal because virtual trackers are pervasive.

The best way is with tracking blockers, software or browser settings which limit electronic predators from capturing and recording a user’s online activity.

One is Adblocker. It’s free for the removal of advertising or malware during web surfing. It is added to a browser as an extension after downloading from an App store.  There is also AdBlock Plus,  Poper Blocker, Stands Fair AdBlocker, uBlock Origin, Ghostery, or AdGuard for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.

Inexpensive GPS blockers can be bought for homes via Amazon, eBay, Bangood, etc., and installed as physical firewalls. Also, add on hidden camera detectors.   

TACTICS — There is also free software such as DuckDuckGo. It works by creating an encryption wall that protects a user from being virtually snooped. It removes those tracking codes usually embedded into the metadata of a web page.

Another strategy is to only use browsers with powerful tracker protection, or at least, that allow turning off third-party “cookies.” Using a virtual private network also helps, but it cost some money.

Next, try not to rely too much on wifi hotspots. It’s not easy because wifi sniffers are all over the real world, but with a little discipline we can avoid snoopy hotspots by keeping our smartphones off the public grid as much as we can.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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