Dear Lifehacker, I understand that signing up for "free" services like Gmail and Facebook requires that I put my trust in a company and provide them with quite a bit of private personal data. I know that data is supposed to be kept private, but with the amount of information and web activity that's tracked every day I'm started to worry. How paranoid should I be, and is there any way I can ensure my data isn't being used in ways I don't want? Thanks, Paranoid About Privacy
Title photo remixed from an original by Gemenacom
You're right to be a little paranoid. When you're offering private and personal information to a company whose first priority is to turn a profit, there's cause for concern. That said, there's only so much a company is legally allowed to do. Additionally, there are steps you can take to reduce the amount of tracked information so you have fewer reasons to worry.
The good news is that your personal data is your data and a company is nearly never allowed to use it without your permission. The bad news is that your permission is easily given by accepting a contract -- the terms and conditions you ignore and accept by clicking a button to claim that you read them -- and simply interacting with the site.
What You Can Do To Reduce How Much Companies Track You
The most important thing to remember is that you have complete control over what personal data you choose to provide to any given company. You do not have to post embarrassing photos to Facebook or shop for an erotic massager on Amazon. It's important to be aware of the trade you're making every time you willingly provide information with a company's web site. You should consider each interaction like a conversation with a potentially gossipy friend. Visiting a product page on Amazon while signed in to your account can be considered the same as telling someone "I'm interested in learning more about this product." If you want to keep any information private, simply do not share it. You have to take responsibility for what you do and do not share online.
In regards to tracking, however, you can opt out. You've likely heard of Do Not Track and a little about what it does. Simply put, it tells the sites you visit not to track you by adjusting your browser settings. Sometimes that's done through an extension and sometimes through settings within the browser. (You can learn how to enable Do Not Track methods for your browser here.)
It also helps to know what information is actually being tracked so you can decide if you care. A browser extension called Ghostery can unveil the tracking methods used on most web sites. Just install it and it'll allow you to unveil the process so you can see how you're being tracked. You may find that your assumptions were a little off.
The Bottom Line
Browsing the internet and providing your data to companies who have no ethical obligation to you is worthy of a little paranoia, but you also have to remember that they're providing a service you want. This is ultimately a very long discussion with several complicated issues, but it really just comes down to your personal choice. You can share as much or as little as you want. The data you provide to Facebook or Google or whomever is up to you. Your paranoia over privacy should only reach so far as what level of concern the data you choose to share actually warrants. Basically, if you think before you disclose and prevent any unwanted tracking, you're making a reasonable effort to protect your personal privacy without giving up the "free" services you enjoy.
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