Definition of Software Privacy
By Chuck Ayers
Privacy software protects the personal information of people who use the Internet. Your browser offers certain levels of privacy protections, but the protections are limited and, while easy to employ, often inconvenient if you visit certain sites requiring passwords routinely. The practice of tracking Internet usage is so pervasive and the tracking technology evolves so quickly that it's impossible for security software writers to keep pace. If you use the Internet, a lot of your personal information will be tracked no matter what you do. The best you can do is limit what information goes where.
The collection of private information has become so pervasive that even the most apparently innocuous of sites is likely planting tracking software onto your computer, usually without your knowledge. These little software packets are called "cookies," "flash cookies" and, by far the most intrusive, "beacons." Third-party beacons can track every key stroke you make and even where you move your cursor. If that isn't scary enough, a 2010 analysis by the Wall Street Journal showed that of the top 50 websites visited by Internet users in the United States, an average of 64 pieces of tracking software were installed onto the computers of visitors. A dozen of those sites installed more than 100.
An entire industry has developed around amassing surfing data that is sold to advertisers for the companies to best target their advertising. Consumer tracking is the information engine that helped spawn $23 billion in Internet advertising in 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal article. The information tracking companies claim not to know you by name, just a tracking number, Internet protocol address or other identifier. But so much information about so many people, when analyzed, can establish surfing profiles. The goal is to achieve real-time interpretation of data so that if you're planning to buy an sport-utility vehicle, for example, the information is deciphered, analyzed and sold within seconds and you'll start seeing vehicle advertising all over Web pages you visit.
So far, court decisions have supported the placement of benign cookies onto your computer, so there is nothing illegal about it. But the courts have yet to consider the more interactive data-collecting bugs such as flash cookies and beacons. Beacons are the most intrusive once planted because they continually monitor everything you do and everywhere you've been on the Web until such time as you hit a site affiliated with the site that planted the beacon and it downloads all the information it has collected.
Privacy and Your Browser
All major browsers have privacy feature options that allow users to see and delete cookies. The procedures vary with the browser but for the best privacy, install the latest version of the browser for the most up-do-date privacy options and cookie-detection choices. All will show you the hundreds of cookies on your system. You can pick and choose or delete them all. Keep in mind--and this is where it can become inconvenient--if you delete them all, websites that require passwords will have to be entered manually each time you visit the site. If you visit a lot of websites like that, keeping track of user names and passwords can become cumbersome. Go to " WSJ.com/WTK" for directions on deleting cookies on all major browsers. You can also set rules for blocking cookies on most browsers. For Explorer 8, the latest Explorer version, go to "Tools/Internet Options/Privacy." There is no way to stop beacons without special software or plug-ins.
There are external software products you can install to mask your IP address to protect against identity theft. Other software programs will erase all traces of the locations you've visited while surfing and still other products will hide or encrypt where the user has been. A similar product is available to hide or encrypt your surfing history from others who use your PC, if that is a privacy concern.
Chuck Ayers began writing professionally in 1982, breathing life into obituaries, becoming a political and investigative reporter at a major East Coast metropolitan newspaper. He now freelances and is a California communications and political consultant. He graduated from American University, Washington, D.C., with degrees in political science and economics.