• Mohan Chathuranga

If it's free, You are not the customer-You are the Product

Too many people have used so many free services on internet thinking that they are getting something for free. Is this true?

You clicked on a new pair of shoes while surfing the Web, and now those shoes are popping up in ads on your social-media pages, in your e-mail, just about everywhere. You can’t shake them because you’re being tracked. With every move you make on the Internet, sophisticated technology collects data on you, and that information gets used for targeted marketing campaigns. The trend is undoubtedly a little disturbing, but is it something that should worry a regular consumer? Social-media sites, cell-phone companies, e-mail services, cell-phone apps, online retailers, and search engines are all collecting comprehensive dossiers on you. Most say that they don’t sell or share information that identifies you by name, but they do admit to using this information to find audiences for specific ads, like the ones that show up on Facebook.

What is the impact?

You don’t know what these personal dossiers could be used for in the future. We have learned from the documents released by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency is scooping up information from companies that collect data on people. That data can be used for a number of things. In addition, commercial tracking could eventually mean individualized prices for everyone. This is already starting to happen at some online retailers. If you buy an expensive pair of pants, for example, an assumption may be made about you and what you can afford to pay. Higher prices may be tailored to you as a result.

Here are few tips on how you are being tracked and how you can limit it.

Tracking IDs

Websites have long used unique IDs in "cookies" -- data files stored in your browser -- to know it's you when you return a week later. Cookies also let advertising networks run by the likes of Facebook and Google connect you as you visit multiple websites. Phones and tablets have a device advertising ID that apps can use to track you. 

  • Combating this: You can reset the cookie ID by clearing cookies periodically. Most browsers also have a private mode to limit tracking through cookies, though it's not foolproof. Companies can still link you if you've signed in, for instance. As for the device ID, you can reset that or tell advertisers not to target ads through the phone's settings. 

Many browsers also let you install add-ons that block ad trackers. Notable add-ons include Ghostery or the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger. 

  • The trade-offs: You'll still get ads, just not targeted ones. And clearing cookies makes your browser forget who you are, so you'll have to sign back into any site that was saving your login. Tracker blockers can sometimes prevent websites from displaying or working properly. 

Location Services

Many apps need your location to work. Mapping apps, for instance, can't tell you when to turn without knowing where you are. Video services typically have rights only in certain countries and need to verify your location. But location can be used for much more. Google, for instance, keeps a fairly detailed account of your whereabouts through a feature called Timeline. 

  • Combating this: You can turn off location services in the phone's settings, though for apps to work property, it's better to turn them off for specific services that don't really need them. As for Timeline, you can pause or delete location history in Google settings. 

  • The trade-offs: Some apps won't work without your location. Others, such as weather apps, will require you enter your location manually. And you might miss out on recommendations such as better commuting routes via apps like Waze. 

Signing In

Signing into an online account gives services a sure-fire way of tracking you. Facebook won't work at all without an account; Google merely works better with one. And you'll generally need an account with any service that charges you, although sometimes you can sign in with your Facebook or Google ID instead. 

  • Combating this: Resist creating an account or signing whenever you can -- such as when you're merely browsing rather than buying. Avoid using Facebook or Google IDs whenever possible, as those companies could then track you. You can also use a different email address for each account to frustrate efforts to connect you across services, although it can be a major pain. 

  • The trade-offs: Some services require signing in, and creating accounts on each service means more passwords to remember (though you might consider using a password manager). Whatever you do, don't reuse the same passwords across service; that makes them easy to hack. 

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