Since launching an investigation into how our phones share our personal information, the most common question among many hundreds I’ve received has been: What can I do to stop all this online tracking and data collection?
This is a really complicated question to answer. In large part that’s because the systems companies use to collect data about us are also very complicated.
So unfortunately, there’s no simple solution. But there are plenty of things you can do to educate yourself and minimise the trail of data you leave all over the web.
So with the assumption that most of us don’t want to give up our smartphones and live entirely offline — suggestions given with tongues only slightly in cheek by some of the experts I contacted — I’ve tried to put together some practical tips.
Block data requests you don’t need
One of the most effective things you can do to limit (though not eliminate) the widespread collection of data about your online behaviour is to block requests you simply don’t need.
When looking at my own data, up to 72 per cent of requests were made to domains known to track online behaviour and a good percentage of those would have been doing only that. They had no other purpose.
If those kinds of requests can be identified and blocked, you’re making a good start, and there are a number of tools available that help you do just that.
A browser extension might help
The easiest-to-use blocking tools (for desktops at least) are internet browser extensions.
If you’re unfamiliar with browser extensions, all the major browsers including Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari have a wide variety of third-party extensions available. These are essentially small apps that work inside the browser.
Unfortunately, there are so many extensions that claim to block ads and protect your privacy, it can be hard to know where to start.
These three all enjoy good reputations among privacy advocates and were recommended by multiple experts we spoke to.
They offer extensions for a number of browsers across multiple platforms.
They all take slightly different approaches to how they block requests, so take a look if you like the technical details, but they will all provide a good boost to privacy.
Do you need a whole new web browser?
Dr Liam Pomfret, associate lecturer in marketing at University of Queensland Business School, and a board member of both the Australian Privacy Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia, recommends using the Firefox browser which has recently taken a much stronger stance against tracking.
“Using Chrome is basically giving your data to Google on a silver platter,” he says.
Want to help?
- Is there something you’d like to know about the data being shared by your devices? Let me know
- I’m expecting a lot of data and might need some help sifting through it. Get in touch if you’d be up for that
- Let’s chat on Twitter where I will be tweeting about what I find using the #DataLife hashtag
- You can email me on email@example.com
In August, Mozilla promised a series of updates to Firefox that would “protect users by blocking tracking” by default — a goal other browser vendors, especially Google, may be less likely to pursue due to their reliance on user data as part of their business model.
Apple too made a big deal this year about taking the fight to companies which monitor users’ web browsing, vowing to make it harder to track the activity of people using their Safari web browser.
There are also an increasing number of browsers being released with a very explicit focus on privacy. These options may be worth checking out:
- Brave: A privacy-focused web browser with bold aims around changing how publishers are paid for creating content.
- Cliqz: Created by the same company that owns the Ghostery browser plugin, Cliqz attempts to change the way web advertising works so users see relevant ads without ever sharing their browsing data.
- Tor: More than just a browser, Tor is a project that aims to give users total anonymity when browsing the internet.
The ABC has not verified all claims about privacy made by the makers of these browsers.
It may be especially worth considering these browsers for use on your smartphone since availability of browser extensions on mobile, especially Apple’s iOS, is more limited.
But blocking isn’t enough on its own
Two big reasons that blocking requests using a browser extension isn’t a complete solution are:
- It won’t prevent tracking from other apps or computer programs, and
- The way companies share and trade personal data means they might get your data anyway.
Many of the experts we spoke to for this story make the point that there’s no substitute for awareness.
“Be aware that every action taken online today is likely to be feeding recommendation algorithms,” says Daniel Angus, senior lecturer in computational social science at the University of Queensland.
“Carefully consider how spontaneous any information you encounter online actually is, and always evaluate these recommendations critically to ensure you get the full picture.”
The more you understand about how data is extracted and used, the better you’ll be at maintaining your digital privacy.
Learn some digital hygiene
Tim Wilson-Brown, a digital privacy expert and developer on the Tor project suggests being diligent with digital hygiene is helpful for maintaining your privacy.
He says you should make sure you check privacy settings regularly and “turn off features you don’t use, and remove apps you don’t use”.
Dr Pomfret also suggests staying logged out most of the time is good practice.
“Consider if you really need to login to a website to do what you want on that site. All the privacy tricks in the world won’t matter if you’re just outright telling the website that it’s you browsing right now,” he told us.
Convenience is sometimes a double-edged sword
Using social media accounts to login to other websites is an example offered by Dr Angus.
“While convenient,” by using social logins, “you are exposing yourself to massive intrusions on your privacy by unknown third parties,” he says.
Many people may not be aware of what data is shared between the companies when you use these login options.
This summary of social logins from a big tracking company neatly explains why marketers find it so valuable: “Increase registration rates while gaining access to users’ rich, first-party identity data.”
Dr Pomfret also points out that your email address is a convenient way for companies to link the data they collect with other datasets they may get from other web services or by purchasing it from data brokers.
“If you can deal with the hassle, it’s not a bad idea to have a few different email accounts to use when you need to sign up for an account online,” he offered.
Don’t give it up so easily
Monique Mann, a research fellow in technology and regulation at Queensland University of Technology, suggests thinking carefully about what information you give to online services and whether it’s actually necessary.
“Limit the information you provide to the purpose for which it is being provided,” Dr Mann says.
“For example, does an online retailer need to know my date of birth when I make a purchase? Probably not.”
If there’s no reason for the company to have some piece of information but it’s been made compulsory, Dr Mann suggests you consider giving false information (like a fake date of birth).
Dr Pomfret gave similar advice.
“While you can’t avoid putting things like your credit card details and address in when you’re shopping online, most stores will ask you if you want them to remember your card details,” he says.
“Don’t check the box. Your card details can’t be stolen in a database hack if they haven’t retained them to begin with.”
Getting more serious
One recommendation I heard a lot from the more technically savvy folks who wrote in was to install a Pi-Hole on your home network.
A Pi-Hole is essentially a small computer that does a similar thing to many of the browser extensions discussed above — that is, it blocks unnecessary requests.
It’s a little more complicated to set up — and another downside is that it only provides protection while you’re on your home network — but it will block requests from all apps and devices using the network, not just web browsing.
You might also be interested in these resources which can help you understand your own digital privacy situation:
- Survillence Self Defense: This is an invaluable resource from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for those who want to take their digital privacy more seriously. A good starting point is their guide to understanding your personal risks.
- Know about your privacy rights and ask questions of providers. In Australia, the way companies can use our data is regulated by the Privacy Act. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has a lot of information that can help you understand your privacy rights.
- Do a personal data exposure audit. If you really want to freak yourself out, you can request a copy of all data many companies have about you. A site called My Data Request aims to help you with that process.
- Do you know how uniquely identifiable you are? EFF’s Panopticlick project helps you assess how safe you are from tracking.
The ultimate solution?
While all the steps above are likely to be helpful, it’s important to remember that ultimately there isn’t a simple solution and you won’t avoid all tracking, no matter what you do.
“Digital privacy is a complex issue with many moving parts,” Dr Angus says.
“The solution in protecting the rights of digital citizens is one which therefore requires multiple complimentary approaches.”
He says we need both the right tools and continuing education to keep ourselves save and protect our own privacy.
However, he also advocates for better regulation. And by better, he doesn’t mean simply more.
“The services and end products of the internet are where we most need to see significant regulatory change,” he says.
While noting the advances in this space made by Europe with their General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), he also highlights the challenges the international nature of the internet poses.
“We need international policy that can enable us to monitor and regulate the actions of government, not-for-profit, and commercial web services where they impact on the security, privacy and rights of global citizens,” Dr Angus says.
Is that it?
There are many more aspects to digital security more broadly, like making sure your password security is good, ensuring devices and software are up to date, avoiding malware and phishing attempts.
The suggestions here are primarily about avoiding tracking and leaking personal data unexpectedly.
In any case, the challenge of digital privacy is ongoing.
Tracking companies are always coming up with new and exotic ways to monitor our behaviour online — and if you hear of any new techniques, I’d love to hear about them.
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