Google privacy policy asks if you want to be tracked

In the past few days, there has been some controversy in the media and on the blogs about Google’s new privacy policy, Google overriding the Safari browser’s “do not track” feature, and other potential privacy issues. While many Internet users are aware that the “free” online services such as Google and Yahoo! are advertiser supported, receiving compensation from advertisers for the banner ads that appear on every page, paid placement in search engine results, and other revenue sources, most users are unaware that their browsing habits are also tracked, with the information sold to advertisers.

There are several ways that Web services such as Google track users, and these include a variety of “third party” cookies (small text files mostly used for tracking purposes), Web beacons (1 pixel graphic files that are virtually invisible to the user), IP tracking (your browser typically broadcasts its IP address), and other methods. Some browsers, such as Apple’s Safari, block third-party cookies by default, while other browsers offer the option to block or allow third-party cookies. In Firefox, third-party cookies can be blocked or managed by going to Tools (in the menu bar), then Options, then Privacy, and then pull down the menu at “History – Firefox will:” and select “Use custom settings for history.” Another selection will appear that allows the user to accept third-party cookies by checking the box, or refusing them by unchecking the box. If third-party cookies are accepted, the user can then use the pull-down menu to keep them until they expire (from hours to decades), automatically delete third-party cookies when closing Firefox, or be asked what to do with each cookie. With Internet Explorer, the default medium-high privacy setting in IE blocks most dangerous third-party cookies by default. If desired, IE users can manage their own privacy by clicking on Tools, Internet Options, Privacy, Advanced and then the user can select to accept, block or prompt whenever third-party cookies are encountered. The reason why Internet Explorer does not block all third-party cookies is aptly explained on a Firefox help page: “Some Web sites (e.g. Microsoft’s Hotmail, MSN, and Windows Live Mail Webmail) use third-party cookies for purposes that are not necessarily privacy concerns, and disabling third-party cookies may cause problems with those sites.”

During a security scan, many of the antispyware utilities such as SuperAntiSpyware and MalwareBytes routinely scan for and delete third-party tracking cookies. Rather than using a security scan to delete tracking cookies that may already be on the computer, which have been busily sending the users’ browsing habits to third parties until they are deleted, it may be better to stop or minimize tracking before tracking can take place. Some browsers, such as Firefox, have a “Do Not Track” feature that tells Web sites and their advertisers that this user does not want to be tracked. In Firefox, this feature can be quickly and easily enabled by clicking on Tools, Options, Privacy and then checking the box “Tell Web sites I do not want to be tracked.” Even though the user explicitly asks not to be tracked, many Web sites and advertisers do not honor the request, while others will respect the users’ wishes. Enabling the “Do Not Track” feature does not apply to beneficial cookies such as shopping cart cookies, or cookies containing saved login information. Some advertisers question blocking their content, which was automatically determined by the tracking and third-party cookies, alleging that it reduces the “user experience” by not allowing user relevant advertising to be displayed. If you ever wondered how banner ads that somewhat applied to your personal interests were displayed in your browser, it was likely based on the third-party tracking cookies that were previously placed on your drive.

In order to help protect your online and browser privacy, there are several useful free browser plug-ins or add-ons that block or otherwise provide control over these third-party cookies and other tracking tools. One of my personal favorites is “DNT+,” or Do Not Track +. This free utility, available for download at donottrackplus.com, works on both Macs and PCs with the most commonly used browsers, including Google’s Chrome, Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. DNT+ has a cute, animated video that explains what it does and how to use it on YouTube. As a quick experiment while typing this column, after installing DNT+, I connected to CNN.com, and then clicked on the green DNT+ icon on my browser tool bar. DNT+ reported that it blocked nine trackers, including one social network, three advertising networks and five companies that were tracking visitors to this particular CNN Webpage. With some irony, the San Francisco Chronicle Web page with the story about Google’s tracking controversy contained its own trackers: an even dozen trackers, including three social networks, three ad networks, and six other companies tracking visitors to that particular Web page. Since it works on Mac and Windows, with all of the major browsers and is free, Do Not Track + may be a good utility to protect your privacy.

Another interesting and free browser utility that can display a variety of tracking utilities hidden on a Web page is Ghostery, available for free download from ghostery.com.

According to the Ghostery Web site, “Ghostery sees the invisible Web tags, Web bugs, pixels and beacons. Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, Web publishers and other companies interested in your activity.” Ghostery empowers the user to decide which, if any, trackers and related privacy threats are to be blocked or allowed. After Ghostery is installed, anytime a Web page is opened, a red box appears in the top right corner of the browser window that displays the tracking cookies, Web bugs, scripts and other tracking devices embedded on that Web page that are rarely disclosed to the viewer of that. Ghostery is a free browser plug-in that works on Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera and Internet Explorer. As an example, on another CNN page that I just opened, Ghostery found 10 tracking tools, all detailed by clicking the ghost icon on the browser toolbar. Once the selection of tracking tools is displayed, Ghostery can provide detailed information about each, and allow the user to permanently block that particular tracking device.

With all of the controversy about Google’s new privacy policy, and the various methods of user tracking embedded in most of the Web sites that we visit, it would be a good practice to manage third-party cookies, enable browser “Do Not Track” features (although many Web sites routinely ignore that request), and install both Do Not Track + and Ghostery. While most Web sites track users for legitimate commercial purposes and intend no harm, there is always the slight possibility that that same information can be misused. I put Ghostery and DNT+ on all of my computers because I do not like my Internet usage to be tracked; you should consider doing the same.Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.

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