How to Keep Your Privacy in an Era of Pervasive Tracking

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Data protection
Juergen Faelchle/Shutterstock
By Mia Taylor

Shuli Hallak is in the cloud business. Storing data in the cloud carries risks, but she is working on a secure version owned, operated and managed by you. That privacy and security for data such as email, calendar and legal documents might cost as much as $100 a month.

"Privacy is a luxury at this point," says Hallak, founder of Invisible Networks, which works to reveal the physical infrastructure of the Internet, and of a company that will create boutique data privacy solutions for high-end clients. Hallak envisions her as-yet-unnamed company starting out as a luxury, aimed at people who can afford it or who need to afford it, such as lawyers and others handling sensitive information.

"We get all of these services for free on the Internet, and in exchange we give up our data," says Hallak, who speaks regularly about issues of data privacy and is among a rapidly growing number of entrepreneurs developing companies that offer data and Internet privacy as a commodity. "If you have your own cloud, you have complete control and you can let certain services access your data for a price. If a bank wants to access your data, there can be a price, and they pay a fee to you."

If you're wondering why one would go to such lengths, just think back to the Sony email hacking scandal (which at the very least disrupted a multimillion-dollar movie release), the nude celebrity photos stolen from Apple's iCloud and plastered over the Internet and that lengthening list of data breaches.

On the Internet, Everybody Knows You're a Dog

Or there's always the digital trail the average user leaves just by innocently browsing the Internet to be picked up by cookies, browser fingerprinting, authenticated tracking and more -- all letting companies monitor your activity to inundate you with targeted ads based on your search history. One search about foot fungus or legal assistance and you are forever seeing banner advertisements on those subjects during Internet sessions.

If you doubt the amount of personal information available on the Internet, just visit Pipl.com and enter your name to be shocked and disturbed by the depth of information about your life available to the public -- age, address, phone number, career history and more.

The $40 billion display advertising industry is built by intruding on the privacy of Web users, says Adriana Herrera, founder and CEO of GrandIntent, a new company that says it has developed the first advertising technology platform to put consumer preferences and privacy at the center of the ad experience.

The average Web user is being tracked by 100 advertising technologies each day, Herrera says. "Existing display advertising platforms do not ask permission before a cookie is placed on your browser to follow, track, profile and advertise to you," she says. "The tracked, profiled and collected information is sold multiple times with no consent from the consumer. It is also used to push advertisements to end users regardless of whether they have transactional intent or affinity for the brand pushing the advertisement."

Free or Cheap Alternatives Available Now

But even before these entrepreneurs sell you privacy, you can get some solutions for protecting your data and your profile for free -- or nearly free.
  • Ekko charges $5 a month or $50 a year and was launched in March by Rick Peters. Ekko can password-protect messages, redact them and set them to delete on read, after a predefined time or after a defined number of unique views. "Let's say I need to send you some sensitive information, like a password, I can set it up so that as soon as you view it, the message will be gone," Peters says. Ekko also allows users to search anonymously across all their messages and search engines. "This isn't about any sort of nefarious concerns," he says. "But you should have some concern that if there is all of this data out there about you, it's relatively easy to set you up for identity theft."
  • Private.Me is for truly private Internet searches. When browsing the Internet through Private.Me, your searches will never be seen, stored or accessed by any single person or entity. But you can still choose to keep and revisit your search history, or delete it forever. When you use Private.me, all your personal data are encrypted, sliced up and distributed between geographically dispersed nonprofit organizations set up to be stewards of user data.
  • Blur allows you to browse the Internet without being tracked or forced to provide personal information to log in or complete transactions. The app also provides a password manager, a masking feature for sensitive information and the ability to block ad networks and data collection companies.
  • Ghostery is a free browser add-on allows its 40 million users to see all the companies on a site trying to track you -- and to block those trackers. It shows you what the company calls the "invisible Web" of cookies, tags, Web bugs and pixels, as well as a list of more than 1,900 ad networks and other companies interested in your activity.
  • DuckDuckGo is a popular anonymous browser that doesn't store or sell data about you, meaning if you conduct a search about bankruptcy, bowling or binge eating, you will not suddenly be barraged by ads on those topics the next time you browse.
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