As we use the internet for shopping, research, bill paying, or playing games, we know that the websites we use collect information about us. Collecting information about you is how websites and the companies behind them improve their products and sell advertising. And it’s all legal.
But what information are they collecting, and how do they do it?
It starts when you connect to a website. Your browser has information about you and the computer you’re using, and all that information is available if the website you connected to requests it. So, what kind of information does your browser have? Lots of information: your external IP address, which browser and version number you’re using, your operating system and version number, your time zone, privacy and language settings. Your browser also knows about your processor and video card, your device battery level, your internet connection speed, the fonts installed in your device, display resolution, screen size, and what type of device you’re on – phone, laptop, or desktop.
Want to see what your browser reports to sites that you visit? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a tool called Cover Your Tracks that shows how much information about you and the device you’re on your browser can send to any website that asks for it. Check it out here: https://coveryourtracks.eff.org/
This information makes for a unique fingerprint every time you head onto the internet. So, for example, this data might show that an iPad in Kernville with a low battery charge on a slow internet connection connected to a website and that this same device connected to the site twice last week. But that doesn’t help the website sell you any advertising. So now we come to cookies.
Cookies are bits of data that customize a website just for you. For example, cookies save you the trouble of telling the Home Depot site that your closest store is in Tehachapi every time you go to the site. Or telling the Weather Channel site you want to know the weather in Cortez, Colo., because your sister lives there. Cookies are where websites store the items in your shopping cart before you had to shut down the computer and get your teeth cleaned. So the shopping cart, with your items still in it, will still be there when you get back from the dentist.
The good news is only the browser that set them can read the cookies. So, for example, Chrome can’t read your Edge cookies, and Edge can’t read your Firefox cookies. The bad news is the third-party cookies get added to your browser by ad networks and sneaky tracking companies. These are the cookies that show you ads for bridesmaid dresses for weeks because you searched for them that one time after you watched 27 Dresses when your cousin got married.
Then there’s all the information about yourself that you give away. When you run searches while signed in with Google or Bing or do just about anything on any website, you get to use the site only by agreeing to their privacy policies. Of course, we never read those policies first, but they all say something like, “Sure you can use our site, but we’re going to capture everything you do here and figure out how to use that information to keep you coming back and buying more stuff. Oh, and we might try to make our site or our products better, too, but it’s mostly about advertising.”
All this information, where you are, how fast your connection is, what size screen you’re using, whether you’ve been on the site before, what you looked at while you were there, what you looked at on other sites, whether you’ve bought anything here before, goes into your profile. Your profile is put together with some guessing to figure out what types of advertising you’ll want to see.
What if you don’t want to share so much information? Adding the uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger extensions to your browser will help stop tracking and reduce ads. You can also add the NoScript extension to your browser to limit how much information you share. However, beware that NoScript will change the way many sites look and operate, so use it with care.
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Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.