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What You Should Know About Internet Privacy Policies and Tracking

July 23, 2017

If you use any type of social media or a variety of mobile apps, you sometimes receive notices about changes in the website’s privacy policies. And if you’re a very smart citizen of the internet, you read those notices and keep track of privacy settings for your browsers and social media accounts. But, in case you missed it, Twitter and Hulu have recently changed their policies about tracking your on-line behavior, and they are not alone. More and more companies are updating their privacy policies to track more of your behavior, so you have to be even more vigilant to protect yourself.

The issue is that many sites no longer respect Do Not Track (DNT), a browser privacy setting meant to prevent websites from placing code snippets called “cookies” on your device. Cookies can be used to track your browsing patterns and deliver personalized ads. (Online criminals can also use cookies to track your interests and tailor scams to fool you.) Unfortunately, Do Not Track is basically an honor system, and many websites ignore it, putting the ones that respect it at a disadvantage in winning advertising dollars.

As fewer websites honor browser DNT settings, you will have to work harder to protect your privacy. First, periodically read privacy notices on websites you frequent and applications. They won’t always send you a notification if their terms change, but many states have laws requiring websites to state publicly whether they honor DNT settings and how. For example, some gather tracking data for themselves, even if they don’t offer it to advertisers. You can also set your browser to block cookies or to ask you before accepting cookies. You give up some convenience, because cookies are also used for functions such as auto-filling name and address fields on websites, but you will have control. You can also use tools in your browser to review and delete cookies on your machine.

Watch for new privacy features coming from the browser software companies. In 2018, Google’s Chrome browser will begin blocking ads, such as pop-ups and autoplay videos, that don’t meet the standards set by the Coalition for Better Ads (CBA) industry group. Soon Apple’s Safari browser will use technology called “intelligent tracking prevention” to identify cookies that present a tracking threat and stop them. And you can already get Privacy Badger, a Chrome extension that automatically blocks third-party trackers that follow you around the web and spy on you.

Finally, you can vote with your actions or, in this case, your keyboard, and not participate in sites that don’t respect DNT. (This article in Marketing Land has an interactive graphic showing the DNT policies of major websites.) As a potential customer of online advertisers, you have more power than you think. If violating people’s privacy hurts companies on the bottom line, things are a lot more likely to change.

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