Who is tracking me online? How to Opt Out of Tracking Services

As a Buffalo, NY patent attorney, I have found that one of the hottest areas for new ideas and inventions revolves around Internet security. The world of data mining is big business, and companies make a lot of money by tracking your every movement online and selling this information to the highest bidder. Many people are not even aware that this is taking place. Even more people do not know that you are able to tell most tracking companies not to follow you (i.e. you may choose to opt out of their “services”). How does one accomplish this? Thankfully, there are some tools available to make your job easier.

A good first step in controlling your exposure online is to find out who exactly is tracking you in the first place. Recently, Mozilla has come out with an add-on for the Firefox browser called Collusion. Collusion works in real-time, showing you all the different third parties that are tracking your movements across the web. Collusion will shed light on the interactions between the companies whose website you visit and the third party trackers who are leeching your information. Run Collusion for just one day of normal browsing, and you will be amazed at the number of different trackers following your every step across the Internet. Collusion is still in the developmental stage, but was recently featured by Gary Kovacs in a TED talk.

Once you have targeted the companies following you around, the next step is to tell them to stop (yes, they will usually listen if you ask nicely!) Most third party companies track your whereabouts by installing tracking cookies in your browser. Most also offer what are called “opt out” or “do not track” cookies to download. Now, you are free to go site-to-site and request an opt-out cookie from each of them. However, with hundreds (if not thousands) of these companies out there, this can be a very time consuming process. Thankfully, people have already put together tools to help you opt out of many trackers at once. Do Not Track Plus is a free tool compatible with multiple browsers that effectively blocks over 600 trackers. The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) has created an opt-out tool allowing one to opt out of any behavioral advertising delivered by their member companies. Finally, the World Privacy Forum has put together a basic background to opt-out cookies, as well as compiled a list of links to opt-out of several popular trackers here.

The world of targeted advertising is massive, and its policies intimidating for the uneducated. However, new tools continue to pop up in an effort to swing the pendulum back the other way. Do Not Track is a proposed technology that will allow Internet users to opt out of trackers for good, much like the Do Not Call Registry. Sign of things to come? Let’s hope so.