On Tracking, Search, and Paranoia

Do you ever feel like you’re being followed, or watched? That tingling at the top of your spine, those sounds that you only half-heard but know were there, that whiplash that you get when you try to catch your stalker in the act; those are all natural feelings that we get all the time. Sometimes it’s nothing; a person happens to be walking in the same direction as you, or an alley cat is busy stalking through dumpsters for a half-eaten meal.

Other times someone is actually following you. Whatever their intent is, you go into survival mode, adrenaline pumping through your veins, heart beating in your ears. This is how you should feel when you browse the web.

Act One: Your Actions

You’ve heard great things about the new restaurant down the street. While it smells like a mixture of pepper, lemon, and health ordinance violations, your friends have all said that the food is excellent and cheap. Considering how often you’ve eaten Ramen Noodles in the past month, ‘cheap’ is something that you can relate to.

You ask someone on the street what they think about the restaurant. Maybe they’ve been there, maybe they haven’t. Some of them want to talk to you about their grandchildren. Others are clearly out of their minds. Luckily, though, you happen to spot a foodie in your walk and they’re willing to talk to you. You get all of the information that you need, including a recommendation for an entirely different restaurant.

This continues for a while. You talk about different restaurants. Your mom calls and harangues you about going back to school, so you start calling all your friends and getting their opinions on where you might attend. You wonder how you’re going to afford textbooks when you can barely afford real food.

Act Two: Consequences

The next morning you throw your blinds open (despite your poverty, you’re that kind of person) and notice that there’s a new billboard across the street. Surprisingly, it’s advertising that restaurant that you had been asking about yesterday. Why would they need to advertise when they’re right down the street? Nevermind. It’s not important.

You throw your bag over your shoulder and walk the town again. This time you notice that someone has spray-painted the name of an art school you had been talking about on the side of a building. A few buildings down it’s the same thing, except this time it’s for a different school. You spot another billboard, and it’s for some other restaurant that the foodie happened to mention yesterday.

What’s going on? Is this all a coincidence?

No.

Act Three: Red-Handed

You’re convinced that this can’t be a coincidence. There’s no way all of these signs and murals appeared, magically, right after you expressed some form of interest in a related category. The alternative, though…there’s no way. Is there?

Suddenly, you notice that there’s a man in a suit and tie that has been following you for a block and a half. His eyes are hidden behind deep black sunglasses–which is odd, since it looks like it’s about to rain–but it looks like he’s staring right at you.

You stop to talk to someone. You ask, Have you ever heard of a free online college? The person says, Please don’t talk to me. You turn around, and the man is gone. To test your theory, you head to bed, wake up, and throw open your curtains. That billboard has been replaced with a new one. One advertising a free online college.

You’re being followed.

Look, I Get It. You Don’t Like Metaphors.

While the above (shouldn’t) happen to you in your day to day life–at least not quite so blatantly–the fact is that it does. Everywhere you go on the web someone (or multiple someones) is keeping track and taking notes. You’re being watched, whether you like it or not.

Someone is watching you read this article. Refresh this page enough times and I’m sure you’ll see the advertisements that appear on Facebook, or Google change, slowly but surely, to match the content and other content you’ve viewed. Are you okay with this? Do you mind that you’re being followed? You should.

It’s a common practice to track people across the web. It’s how the big-leaguers (in this example, Google and Facebook) target the advertisements that they show you. Since that’s their primary revenue stream, they have a vested interest in making sure you click on, view, and otherwise interact with an advertisement as often as possible.

Choose.

Would you be okay with me looking through your email, checking what you share on Facebook, or what you’ve searched for? How about reading through your Facebook messages, or the sites you visit after you move along from this website?

That’s what’s happening. The big websites are tracking your movements. While this is understandable on their own websites–they are providing something for free–are you okay with them knowing about all of your browsing history, just so they can show you a few more ads?

George Orwell, when he was writing about Big Brother, was referring to the government. While they have some information on you, they have nothing compared to Google and Facebook. This is like asking for invasion of privacy, plain and simple.

Insulation

Have you ever noticed how Google results seem to be tailored just for you? That’s because they are. Google is keeping tack of the sort of things that you like to read, watch, or say, and is going to serve you up similar results. You are, in effect, insulated from the bits of the web that Google doesn’t think you’ll be interested in.

On the surface this seems fine. You’re going to get better results–great! Unfortunately, this is a slippery slope. When most websites are found via some form of search, any change in algorithim or policy can effectively cut a site from appearing in search results. You’re being shown what you want to be shown, instead of what you should be shown.

How Do I Prevent This?

Well, there are a few options. First, you can clear your browser’s private data, deleting cookies and preferences. Once you’ve done that, install a ‘track me’ browser that you can use to visit Facebook (and nothing else). Perhaps if you normally use Chrome, you could use Safari just to browser Facebook, and never login to it in Chrome. If you want to perform a search with your primary browser, use something like DuckDuckGo instead of another search engine. In fact, if you want more info on tracking and the potential for problems it creates, check out DuckDuckGo’s DontTrack.us site.

Alternately, you can download an extension for your browser of choice that blocks this sort of tracking. There are several available, and a simple search (heh) will bring up a bunch of different options.

Or, you can go the safe route, and do most of your browsing in private mode, blocking cookies and tracking past that one session.

It’s all up to you. If you’re okay with being followed, that’s your choice. At least now you’re aware of it.