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How to Not Get Distracted During the Great Privacy Debate

13/09/2013 12:23 BST | Updated 12/11/2013 10:12 GMT

It might make for a sensational headline, but your data is everywhere.

PRISM has brought the issue of privacy to the forefront of the news agenda, but is just one type of data sharing. Whenever you check an email, buy groceries, visit a cash machine, or watch a television show, data about you and your activities is collected for later use.

As more people understand the data-driven economy, they look for ways to manage exactly what about their lives can be shared. Unfortunately, it's easy to get distracted even as you take steps to protect your privacy.

For Sale: Your Browsing History

Every web page you visit is likely to be equipped with some form of tracking technology. Usually invisible, these technologies range from simple statistical counters to sophisticated behaviour trackers that follow you around the web.

This tracking isn't necessarily bad - cookies are used to help you do things such as tweeting an article you read directly from the site on which it appears, or holding something in your shopping cart for later access. But when data is shared without a clear view as to how it happens, web users become uncomfortable. This is particularly true when the data is sensitive in nature, like a history of research for a medical condition or divorce procedures.

So how can you see the tracking, determine what makes you uncomfortable, and do something about it?

Taking Control

Above-board companies and websites offer direct opt-outs - commonly available through cookie consent disclosures on the sites themselves. When you opt-out, the tracking company places a special type of cookie in your browser that references your preference to be left out of its tracking process. As long as you don't delete that cookie (or it doesn't expire), companies will honour that request - but exactly how each company interprets an opt-out is variable.

The same goes for the Do Not Track feature available in many browsers. This sends a message to every server your browser contacts to request that you not be tracked, but there is no standard for how they must respond to that request. You're still left to trust that tracking companies aren't collecting your data - or at the very least, aren't using the data they collect.

The most proactive and effective measure is to use a privacy browser tool like Ghostery. There are several options for these tools and they vary in features and ease of use. These tools can show you who is tracking you on each site you visit, provide more information about those companies and the data they collect, and let you block that tracking if you'd prefer. The difference between blocking and opting-out is critical. Opting-out via a disclosure or with a Do Not Track request still requires communication with the trackers, while blocking with a browser tool means you never contact those tracking companies at all.

These solutions usually aren't perfect out-of-the-box and can require some configuration. Many video players, social network buttons, and web-based games serve double duty as data trackers - so you have to be careful not to block something you find useful. But if you're concerned about the battle for your privacy, in-browser privacy tools are weapons you'll want at your disposal.

Data collection isn't going anywhere - but thankfully, neither are concerns about user privacy. With a unified voice to our representatives the world over and some individual effort in our own browsers, we can work together to make the web a more transparent place.