Like many of us, the internet has become inextricably woven into the fabric of Kristi Johnson’s life.
“Checking my kids’ grades, checking their homework. I run my business off it. Shop. Facebook, social media,” she said. “I love it.”
The Framingham mom said she has noticed that a sweater or pair of slippers she browsed on one website pop up in ads on others.
“It’s a little creepy,” she said. “They’re watching. Big brother’s watching.”
To protect herself financially, she doesn’t store her credit card information on sites. But beyond that, she said, she doesn’t really care who collects her online data or what they do with it.
“The world has a lot bigger problems than where I’m shopping,” she said.
But Johnson could be leaving herself open to potential privacy and financial issues.
Chandler Givens runs TrackOFF, a company that helps people cover their online tracks. He said that internet surfers have completely lost control over their personal information—even information you don’t think could have a huge impact on your life.
“It even may be as simple as buying groceries online,” Givens said.
Order a lot of red meat or junk food? Givens said health insurers could gather that information about you, and then use it down-the-road when determining your health risk, potentially raising your rates for medical insurance.
Outspending your income, Givens said, could block you from getting a loan.
Shop for a lot of luxury items? Givens said you could wind up seeing higher prices for tickets or trips.
“Even if you went to your next door neighbor's house, and used their computer, you might see a different price than what you shopped for that day on your own computer at home,” Givens said.
He said that kind of information tracking and sharing is already happening and it’s perfectly legal.
“The price discrimination laws in this country don’t govern this type of behavior online,” Givens said. “It’s the same thing with our healthcare information or our financial information. There’s all sorts of federal statutes that apply here in the United States, but they don’t cover information while you’re browsing online.”
So how do you protect yourself? Tech experts suggest starting with your digital cookies, the small files companies drop onto your computer as you browse their websites.
“They’re used for useful things such as keeping track of what you have in your shopping cart, but they can also be used for dangerous things, like tracking you around the web,” Givens said.
If you don’t want a tail, get rid of the cookies. Every browser is different, so search how to delete cookies and clear your history for step-by-step instruction.
Or if you want to avoid any tracking to begin with, Keri Pearlson, MIT researcher and executive director of research consortium Cybersecurity at MIT Sloan, suggests browsing in private or Incognito mode.
Use can also use alternatives to Google and Yahoo that don’t track what you’re searching for.
And don’t log into sites with your Facebook or other social media accounts. Those are a treasure trove of information for data brokers because they link your social media profiles to your web surfing activities.
“Your spouse, your family, your birthday, your hometown, your high school, your college, your degrees… I think we have to assume our information is out there and take other steps to protect ourselves,” Pearlson said.
Givens recommends avoiding public Wi-Fi, where anyone could set up a bogus router and trick you into logging on. If you do use public Wi-Fi, employ a VPN, or virtual private network, to secure your information and data.
“As soon as you connect to my device, now I will see everything that you are doing online, including credit card numbers that you enter, Social Security numbers, usernames, passwords,” Givens said.
And limit the information you voluntarily give out in the first place. The experts say it’s OK in some cases to make stuff up. So go ahead and fudge your birthday or craft an alter-ego when creating a new account.
“I would create a fake e-mail address that you use for all your shopping online,” Givens said.
There also is software you can download that will cover your tracks for you. Some are free, but more extensive services cost a few dollars a month.