What you can do to improve success of Do Not Track efforts: Internet Scambusters #701
Registering for a Do Not Call service is easy and mostly effective -- not so for Do Not Track requests on the Internet.
Unlike with phone calls, there are still no laws in place to stop online services from following you around on the Internet.
It's down to you to do what you can to limit how much your Internet activities are recorded, as we report in this week's issue.
Now, here we go...
Do Not Track Solution Still Out of Reach
Who doesn't feel surprised and more than a little uneasy when an ad pops up in your browser or a posting appears on your Facebook page that exactly reflects something you've been doing online.
You're a victim of tracking -- the process of watching what you do and where you go online and then serving up an item or product that matches your interest.
Even if the results are helpful, you may feel somewhat concerned, especially since, perhaps, you think you've taken prior action to stop those trackers.
The problem is that although there's a voluntary Do Not Track (DNT) framework that's supposed to control who and how someone tracks you, many organizations simply ignore it.
For instance, you may have seen a feature on your browser that automatically sends a DNT request to sites you visit, and you may have limited the way sites can leave tiny bits of code on your PC -- cookies -- after a visit.
But, as Mozilla, the producer of the Firefox browser, explains, all you're doing with a "do not track" request is "expressing a preference," not setting a rule.
And as Wikipedia explains: "Websites and advertisers may either honor the request, or completely ignore it in cases where it's automatically set. The Digital Advertising Alliance does not require its members to honor automatically set DNT signals."
And if you switched off "third party cookies" on your browser so no telltale code is left behind, that doesn't prevent a website from recording your IP address -- the unique identifier for your PC on the Internet -- and ultimately helps advertisers identify what you are interested in anyway.
Furthermore, marketing companies and dubious data mining organizations are constantly collecting bits and pieces of information about you from multiple online sources, creating profiles (often including email addresses) that can be used to target you.
So, for instance, if you mention on Facebook that you just got a new pet dog, don't be surprised if ads for pet supplies and posts about training your dog start to show up during your Internet activities.
Despite what some people may say, there's no definitive way of universally stopping tracking. Individual sites may allow you to opt out, but this is purely at their discretion, and social networks may allow you to limit who sees your posts, but somehow stuff still leaks out.
So you may limit who can see your new dog announcement but if one of your followers "likes" your post, it may then appear on their page -- and so on. And it doesn't prevent Facebook from knowing, either.
Furthermore, if you set your browser so it doesn't allow sites to leave cookies on your PC, you may subsequently have problems when you try to revisit the page.
In fact, increasingly, we are seeing statements published on websites that deny you access unless you agree to allow them to set cookies.
Last year, a new voluntary DNT code was announced to great fanfare by the Electronic Frontier Foundation but with limited subsequent effect.
Recently, there have been renewed legislative moves in the U.S. to create a Do Not Track me mechanism that would enable users to enforce the rule but so far, no hard and fast final proposals have emerged.
This initiative has actually been around for five years and there seems to be a lot of skepticism about whether the latest attempt to revive it will go anywhere.
And there have also been a couple of unofficial attempts to set up a national Do Not Track Register in the same way the Do Not Call Register stops telesales people from calling you. See, for example, http://donottrack.us/
But again, this would be voluntary.
If you want to try to limit tracking, your best hope is to:
- Allow your browser to send DNT requests anyway. Some organizations may comply.
- Switch off third party cookies universally or use software that allows you to decide who can set them on a site-by-site basis.
- Explore the privacy options on individual sites to see if they allow you to stop tracking.
- Be ultra-cautious about the personal information you post online -- or be prepared for your posts to trigger a product-based response.
- Consider using a service that disguises who and where you are. Most commonly this is referred to as a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which routes your Internet access through a third-party computer server.
VPNs were originally set up to allow businesses to communicate securely between multiple locations but they're increasingly used by security-conscious Internet surfers.
For now, and the foreseeable future, the bottom line on Internet tracking is that it's up to you to do what you can to protect yourself and create your own Do Not Track strategy -- with the realization that you probably can't stop the "leak" no matter how hard you try. Be aware that someone is probably "watching" you!
Alert of the Week
There's something of an Internet buzz at the moment about an email that announces, "Your BlackBerry ID has been created."
People who don't have a BlackBerry smartphone and who certainly haven't set up such an ID naturally conclude that it's some sort of scam.
And, indeed, initially, the message did have an attachment that was thought to contain malware.
Later versions don't have the attachment but have links -- but, weirdly, they all lead to genuine BlackBerry websites, leading some recipients to conclude that a BlackBerry ID has been set up in their name by someone else.
If you get either of these messages, don't click on any links or attachments. Trash it!
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.