Recently I hopped on Facebook to wish a friend “Happy Birthday” when I noticed an ad for Perrier—the more than a century-old French naturally-carbonated mineral water company—in my timeline. I don’t recall having seen a Perrier advertisement anywhere before, really. If I have, I don’t remember. But that’s not the point. About two hours before I logged onto social media, I’d placed an online order for a case of the new pink grapefruit Perrier 24-pack. And now, on Facebook, an ad for the water I’d just bought. I didn’t give it much thought because I knew why the ad popped up on my page, not anyone else’s; like you, I’m always being stalked (“tracking” is generally the term used; I prefer stalk.). And though I know it, it nonetheless bothers me.
Online Businesses (And Bad Guys) Know You as Well as You Do
Facebook knows all about me. And the supermarket where I regularly shop knows what I buy and when I buy it. A few weeks ago, on my smartphone, I visited a foodie website to check out a new recipe for pesto. I use Iberia olive oil, and like magic, on the recipe page—unrelated to the supermarket in any way that I know of—when I scrolled down to the ingredient list, an ad for Iberia at my local market popped up. It’s at once helpful and disconcerting.
I want to save nickels and dimes, so I gave away more info about me to them than I know about myself. And by whatever unfathomable algorithm was in control, the internet page knew I needed the oil; the recipe called for a cup and I remembered there was barely a smidge left in the bottle. Magic! Plus, the coupon was for $2 off, which is kind of a lot. At this point I’m not sure if this all is a blessing or a curse.
Online Advertisers’, Marketers’, and Scammers’ Tricks Of The Trade
These are of course rather benign scenarios; what you shop for is one thing, but the depth of the tracking, across devices—phone, laptop, desktop, tablet, smart TV—is quite another.
From the very first form you filled out online for a service or product, the wheels began turning. And most websites you visit track what you’re doing online and all your activity is collated, shared, and stored as a number—yes, you are a number. But you do have some power to control just how much of your life is inside a database in the cloud. Before we get to a few tips to help protect more of your privacy—because there’s no way to protect all your privacy unless you go completely off the grid—let’s cover a few basics.
When you access the Internet, your computer has a specific address—your Internet Protocol, or IP, address—and websites, or law enforcement, or bad guys, can generally locate you geographically. There’s workarounds to mask your IP address, but for now, assume your address is out there for the world to find you. And when you go online with your smartphone, your provider collects your online activity. 
What You Need to Know about Cookie (and Other) Monsters
Now about “cookies.” You’ve heard the term and blocked them, but here’s what they are and how they work: think of cookies as vaults of your information sent back to your hard drive with data including your login info for a particular site, for example, so when you visit that site again, the website knows you and may modify or tailor web pages just for you. These so-called first-party cookies aren’t dangerous, but they’re not harmless either.
But third-party cookies are not your friend. They send information about you to advertisers and marketers who stalk you online. I’m sure it’s third-party cookies responsible for the Perrier ad on Facebook, for example. And it happened quickly; within a couple of hours—probably far less—I was being targeted. And flash cookies and fingerprinting on your computer and your mobile device are worse; flash cookies are those horrible pop-ups you cannot close out of and cannot stop, and fingerprinting takes your identity across devices.
Even though what we’re talking about is advanced advertising and marketing to get us to buy something, all this data can be used in a more sinister way; to steal from us, to rob us of our identities, and worse. Annoying ads are one thing, but the idea of a criminal inside my computer or smartphone is frightening. By way of example, advertisers—and potentially those with more nefarious intentions beyond getting me to buy this or that—know where I am geographically, may have access to my calendar, know where I’m going on vacation, maybe even where I am staying, and have my email address and phone contacts.
A University of California at Berkeley School of Communication research project—which compared the online privacy we expect and the realities of what websites collect and share—had as its goal the identification of harmful and deceptive website practices. Not surprisingly, they found that even the top, most visited (and most likely trusted) websites do some shady stuff, and the research team recommends tighter regulations to protect consumers. 
But while you wait for those tighter regulations and control (don’t hold your breath), you need to take matters into your own hands.
Kids: Online Safety Comes First
If you are a parent, you make sure your kids wear seatbelts in cars and helmets on bikes, look both ways before crossing the street, never respond to strangers, and the like. You protect them; it’s your most important job. And government is trying to keep your kids safe, too. State and federal laws are very clear on what’s allowed and what is not.
California, for example, prohibits websites from marketing or advertising services or products to kids that are otherwise illegal. Kids cannot go buy a pack of cigarettes at the corner store (at least we hope they cannot), and similarly sellers cannot sell or market cigarettes to kids online. California also allows minors to force websites to remove content, photos or information about them. Delaware, too, has very strict laws about advertisers and marketers targeting children. 
Advertising, of course, is the least of the harm. The U. S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says,
…the opportunities kids have to socialize online come with benefits and risks. Adults can help reduce the risks by talking to kids about making safe and responsible decisions. 
My suggestion is you and your kids agree to an online safety pact, wherein they tell you if they have:
- been targeted with illegal or inappropriate ads
- seen has made them uncomfortable or frightened
- been approached by a person online they (and you) don’t know in person
- witnessed bullying
They also agree to never give out their personal information, not install anything without permission, and promise to tell you if they have witnessed (or suffered themselves) any kind of abuse online (inappropriate sexual conduct or requests, body-shaming, sharing of inappropriate photos, illegal activity, etc.) You’ve taught them right from wrong; they’ll know it when they see it, I’m guessing.
This pact idea isn’t foolproof, obviously. You may trust your kids to follow though, but they won’t always. Here’s a few tips to protect them (without them even knowing.) My favorites:
- Google your kids. If there’s something out there to see, that’s one way to find it.
- Depending on their age and what you deem appropriate, sites can be blocked on desktop and laptop computers.
- Make sure their computer screens face their room doors (I know they won’t like it but your house, your rules.)
- Their phones are likely on your plan, or should be, so you have control of what they do online: their calls and texting.
- Don’t go too far. Just keep them safe.
Each phone provider has its own set of parent protocols and controls, so check those out and talk to your kids about it. As a parent of now 20-year-old twins, I had them on lockdown until they were about thirteen, and then while they thought I had given them more freedom, I will admit to having snooped around their social media accounts (the ones they’d thought they’d blocked me from), and remained there, checking in from time to time, until they were juniors in high school. After that, I had to trust, hope, and pray. I’d taught them well, and so far we’re all okay. (Knock on wood.)
Top Tips for Privacy Online
We are not powerless. Be proactive. Here’s a few ideas and suggestions. It is by no means a complete list, but a good start with some great sources. Just add your good common sense and you’re all set.
- Clear out cookies well and often. The procedure is simple, but is different depending on what browser you use (Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, or Safari). 
- Consider protecting your searches online by using a private browser, a Virtual Private Network (VPN). 
- Social media: don’t overshare. If you don’t want your neighbor to know, then don’t share. Simple.
- Ignore spam in email; never click on links within, or even open, email from suspicious or unknown sources. 
- Never give your personal information out to an unknown entity, and when you do provide personal information, think twice and then three times, and make sure you are comfortable with sharing it and assuming it will be shared again with others—including marketers, advertisers and possibly some questionable characters. 
- Read privacy policies. I know. Not fun. And I admitted I don’t read privacy policies—or didn’t, until now. After doing research for this piece, I’ve seen the light. Every state has its own policies, protections, and laws, and a quick visit can help you know what’s what in your state; another tool in your box for internet privacy and safety. 
- Shouldn’t really have to go here, but a refresher: don’t use personal information like your date of birth or your cat’s name; try long passwords with special characters and numerals; use a different password for different sites/accounts, etc.; and because of the latter, consider using a password manager. 
- Make sure your computer has up-to-date anti-pirating and pro-privacy (firewall) software installed. 
The internet can be a blessing or a curse; it’s all in how you use it.