Who is watching you online?

Libraries have always been concerned with protecting people’s privacy.  Some say that, in our online world today, privacy is dead and we should resign ourselves to this unfortunate fact.  Not so.  If you are concerned about protecting your privacy online, yet find yourself feeling powerless to guard your data, take heart!  There are some very easy ways to both find out who is tracking you online and control the amount of data that you provide to those trackers.

Figure 1 – Lightbeam visualization

The two most likely entities tracking you online are individual companies hoping to glean personal data that will better prepare them to market their products and services directly to you, and advertising aggregators, which are businesses that build dossiers of your personal data which they then sell to individual companies.  

Lightbeamis a free Firefox browser add-on with a great visualization feature that allows you to see, at a glance, all the different trackers watching your activity on a particular website, as well as relationships between the trackers themselves, and which trackers are using cookies (Figure 1).  You can use Lightbeam to block individual tracking sites, but beware that this may impede functionality on certain sites.   

Figure 2 – Ghostery alert bubble

Another free browser add-on, similar to Lightbeam, but available across more browsers, including mobile devices, is Ghostery.  Once you’ve installed Ghostery, every time you visit a new webpage in your browser, Ghostery will automatically load a pop-up list of all the trackers watching you on that site (Figure 2).  Like Lightbeam, Ghostery’s add-on makes it easy to block individual trackers on a site and even gives you the option of blocking individual cookies.

Both Lightbeam and Ghostery require lots of hands-on engagement and configuration to block trackers.  If you want something that runs in the background and automatically blocks trackers without you having to think about it, give PrivacyBadger a try.  

If you want a tiny glimpse into what the trackers know (or think they know) about you, check out your Google ad profile (must be signed into Google account) or visit Axciom’s About the Data project to take a look at your profile there.  (Axciom is a marketing company that specializes in reselling your personal data to other firms.)

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