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A few words on privacy

Kristian BognaesKristian A. Bognaes, Director, Norman Safeground Development Center

- Christmas time is upon us. For many, this means going online to shop for gifts. Recent numbers show that online shopping is increasing over shopping in traditional stores every year. Shopping online is fast, convenient, and often less expensive. There is no reason to believe that online gift shopping will not continue to grow in the years to come.

Your behavior as a consumer online is meticulously tracked. Most online store fronts have mechanisms in place to record your browsing, purchases, and time spent on a particular site. Even so-called ‘abandoned carts’ are recorded, to help stores analyze how they can ‘help’ the customer make the final leap to spend the money. Based on all this data, the pages you see can be customized to show things and offers you are more likely to want to act on. This is all well and good. You should, however, beware of how much data online stores collect on you. After a few visits, your profile can become quite comprehensive. As a cautious shopper, you should always assume that this data can be used outside of the store that you are visiting.

Preparing your browser for the holidays

There are a few things you can do to reduce the amount of tracking and profiling that is going on, both when shopping and when using other sites.

Turn on the ‘do not track’ switch

The ‘do not track’ setting is featured in most modern browsers. It will tell the site that you are communicating with that you do not want to be tracked. It is a honorary system, though, but several large sites have announced that they will respect this setting. This setting should, at least in theory, make it clear to sites that you do not want to be tracked.

Cookies

A majority of sites that you visit will use so-called ‘cookies’ to maintain a state of the communications between you and it. You can switch cookies off in your browser, but this will often cause inconvenience for you when visiting larger shopping sites. One setting that is worth looking into, though, is the setting that prevents the use of third-party cookies. Cookies can only be read by the same domain setting them. But elements in the web page may belong to other sites, like dedicated tracking sites. These can set their own cookies that do not belong to the domain of the site that you are visiting and are almost always used for tracking. Third party cookies should always be turned off in your browser, and some browser companies are even talking about disabling them by default.

Use the ‘privacy’ mode

Some browsers have something called a ‘privacy mode’. If you start the browser in this mode, no local data will be stored at all. The advantage of this is that tracking based on Flash, java, and other can not store data on your machine and can hence not tell anyone on where you’ve been and what you have been doing. There’s a slight disadvantage, though, and that is that regular cookies will not be stored either. Some sites may not work right if regular cookies are not allowed to be set.

Use a privacy extension

A very efficient way of preventing all kinds of tools tracking you, is to use a browser extension that recognizes and blocks such objects. The extension ‘Ghostery’ does this, as well as the open-source ‘Disconnect’.

Ultimate privacy

To achieve ultimate privacy on the internet, you can use a proxy server. A proxy server is a system and service on the net that  you channel all your network traffic through. The destination sites that you are connecting to will then think the traffic comes from the IP address of the proxy server, rather than from you. For Christmas shopping purposes, this is most certainly overkill. Just remember: in today’s surveillance world, you do not have to do anything sinister to want this level of privacy.

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