We live in a time where personal data is the new gold and almost everything we do online is being tracked. From search & location history our hobbies and interests and even articles we read. This is a treasure trove to advertisers as information like this can be used to tailor which ads and content that are relevant to the individual user.
In 2017, about 98 percent of Facebook’s global revenue was generated from advertising, whereas only around two percent was generated by payments and other fees revenue. Facebook ad revenue stood at more than 39.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2017, a new record for the company and a significant increase in comparison to the previous years. For instance, the social network generated almost seven billion U.S. dollars in ad revenue in 2013, about 10 billion less than the 2015 figure. Source
You might think that it isn’t necessarily a problem that major corporations such as Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. collects data about your online browsing habits in order to give you a better ad experience, you even have the option to opt out of interest-based ads. But what happens when your data that has the potential of telling everything about you and your habits, is somehow leaked to third-party entities?
If you have read about the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, it was estimated that about 50 million users were acquired from 270,000 Facebook users who shared the data with the app “thisisyourdigitallife”. By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app information about the friend network of those people without their consent.
So if you’re like me and find general incessant tracking of your online activities to be incredibly violating to your privacy, not to mention the worry of having your own personal data leaked, I will walk you through the steps I have taken to ensure minimal tracking of what I do online.
1. Opt out of interest based-ads
Depending on what kind of services you use, if you don’t want companies to display ads based on what you do on your computer, you should go to the settings of each platform and untick the option to have interest based ads to be displayed.
Below are two screenshots on how turn off these settings for Twitter and Facebook.
2. Get an ad-blocker
This is the most simple and probably also the most important step.
An ad-blocker is a plugin you install in your browser and is incredibly efficient at preventing ads from displaying and stopping tracking sources from collecting data about your browsing habits. The short and sweet of what an ad-blocker does, is that it prevents known advertisement sources from displaying ads on websites and third-party tracking scripts from loading in your browser whenever you visit a website, virtually blocking any attempts at gathering data about what pages you visit.
For what ad-blocker to get for your browser, I recommend installing uBlock Origin, it’s a light browser plugin that is incredibly effective at what it does.
3. Be careful before you click “accept”
A lot of websites and services have the option, sometimes is required, that you sign up using one of your social media accounts. The way this is done is that a website or application you’re signing up for will request information that is needed for the service to work. This can typically include your name, email and profile picture. Once that registration is completed, the information you have provided will often be stored in third-party databases.
If you typically use this method of registration, you can probably already picture that some of your personal data could be all over the place, which can become a huge problem as each website/service have their own Terms of Service of what they can do with your data. Each service might also have their own security vulnerability, inferior data encryption or no encryption at all; all of which can become target of data leaks and theft.
It honestly comes down to using common sense whenever you sign up for something. If you’re on Facebook or on your mobile device and you find a neat app you want to try out – take a good look at what information the app needs and ask yourself if it’s worth it. For example: Did you find a neat flashlight app for your phone? Have a good look at what kind of information the app requests. Does the app require your phone number, access to your microphone or your GPS location, you can most likely guess that something fishy might be going on.
To summarize: use common sense to determine what information you want to share any app or service.
This step is mostly tied to step 3. If you have already registered for a bunch of apps through Facebook, Twitter or any other online platform and want to “cut off the flow” of your personal data from being used, you can indeed do so.
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Please note that revoking an app’s access to your data does not mean that your previously stored data will be erased. You simply prevent an app or website from accessing your information in the future. Erasing such data stored by any third-party is a much more daunting task if not impossible, it all depends on how your information was handled.
5. Managing your data on Google
If you have a Google account, it is definitely also worth paying attention to your account settings and how your data is being collected. If you have an Android phone, your Google account is most likely connected and as such, Google is most likely collecting data on where you have been, your device information (apps you have installed, phone contacts etc.) and even voice and audio activity.
While this data might not inherently be used for ad personalization, one might not find the thought of having your location and voice activity stored to be particularly pleasant. Luckily, this can be turned off under your Google account settings. To access Google’s activity controls you can click on your profile picture in the top right corner on any Google-owned website and click on the blue button “My account” or simply click here and you will be presented with the following page.
From here, you can access mentioned activity controls and turn off any settings you don’t want enabled. Same goes for ads settings where you can turn off ads personalisation.
6. (Android phone only) Get ad-blocker for your phone.
Getting an ad-blocker for your smartphone can prove a bit more complicated as app stores don’t want to give you the option to download an ad-blocker for your phone. With an android phone however, this can be easily done as you can download applications that is not available on the Google Play store. All you need to do is to allow applications from unknown sources, as android phones by default will not allow apps to be installed that is not found on the Play store. Go to your phone’s settings and go to “Security” and tick the option to allow apps from unknown sources.
Now to find and install our ad-blocker! An effective ad-blocker you can get for your android phone is Blockada, which is an open source project and, just like uBlock Origin for your computer, does a great job at blocking tracking sources and ads.
To install Blockada, go to Blockada.org and download the .apk file, once you have installed the program you should get promted to install the app, once that is done you’re all set and ads should now be blocked on your phone!
And that’s about it. If you somehow read through all this and think I might be a bit paranoid for taking all these measures to limit any data tracking, I honestly don’t blame you. At the end of the day however, when it comes to your own personal data, I believe a healthy dose of paranoia is necessary if you don’t want your information in the wrong hands. With the recent scandal in regards to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, is has become rather obvious is that you can’t really rely on companies to keep your data secure as data leaks can happen at any time. So if you ask me, you would be better off managing your own data by yourself.
I hope my guide was helpful and if you have any suggestions or improvements to my guide, I’d be glad to hear from you. Until next time!