Think that your online activity is just between you and your computer? Think again. Between tracking software and social media, your digital footprint is larger than you know. In fact, your every move on the World Wide Web is likely being watched — from the websites you visit to the topics you search and the items you buy online. All of this information is likely gathered without your knowledge and consent, and it’s being used to build a detailed online profile about you.
Creeped out yet?
What is this information used for?
Mostly marketing purposes. Ever noticed how that pair of shoes you Googled the other day is now showing up as an ad on the side of your Facebook page? How about those unsuspecting ads on the top of your Gmail inbox that just happen to be for something you emailed your mom about yesterday?
Known as behavioral tracking, it refers to “the practice of tracking web users (and mobile apps users) on the Internet. Browsing histories, email interactions and website visitors’ behaviors are tracked, collected and stored for marketing and advertising purposes.”
How does this even happen? Cookies — and I’m not talking the Girl Scout variety — on just about every website allow your digital life to be tracked without you even realizing it. Below is an info-graphic that illustrates the results of an in-depth analysis on the prevalence of behavioral tracking.
What does this mean for consumers?
Behavioral tracking is used mainly for marketing purposes, but poses a serious threat to everyone. Financial institutions, employers, landlords, criminals and so forth can potentially obtain this information and use it against you. Why? Because there are currently no limits in place to control what is collected, how it is stores and with whom it can be shared.
How to keep your digital footprint in check.
There are several things consumers can do to protect their information online. If you are diligent and maintain the following, you are less apt to be victimized in digital world.
- Maintain good password hygiene. This means pick unique passwords (think letters, numbers, symbols, etc.) for every online account — do not use the same password over and over! Yes, it may be harder to remember multiple passwords, but they are also hard for hackers to figure out. Also, change your passwords often — at least once every six months.
- Install a security/anti-virus program on your computer and use it!
- Pay attention to security upgrades. Virus protection isn’t enough, as sophisticated hackers are always creating new ways to get around popular security software, so installing updates — preferably as soon as they are sent to you — is ideal.
- Don’t be stupid! If you get an email from someone you don’t recognize, don’t open it. Also, don’t click on mysterious links or download attachments from those you don’t know. Likewise, never share your personal information, such as bank accounts and passwords — trust me, that form in your inbox requesting this information isn’t from your bank! Also, As in real life, the virtual world is filled with good and bad neighborhoods. Stick to the good and avoid the bad, such as gaming and porn websites.
And, when it comes to social media…
Consumers need to heed the Federal Trade Commission’s advice and not over-share (I know, this can be difficult for some). Posting too much on social networking sites can allow hackers to figure out the answers to password-protected online accounts, which means they can potentially gain access to valuable information such as bank accounts.
Likewise, share as little information as possible about yourself and your family to keep others from knowing too much about you. That means think twice before sharing that video of your little ones or utilizing location services on your mobile device and checking into a place on Facebook and other social sites. After all, you don’t what predators knowing where you live (or where you are at any given moment), places you visit frequently and when you’re not home, do you?