News reports alleging that the NSA has been collecting mobile-phone data have brought to mind a creepy feeling I sometimes get when I am online. Someone is “reading” my mail and likely yours too. Email, that is, as well as your online searches. The proof? Those ads that pop up on the right side of your screen, echoing the email you just wrote a friend about your new diet or the search you just did for sneakers. The ads are not coincidence.
I asked some folks in the know, who tell me this is called “scraping,” done by computer programs designed to identify key words to link to ads. These reader/scanner programs don’t read the content of your email, but they do collect the words you type in messages or in searches.
Here is PC Magazine’s definition of scraping:
Extracting e-mail addresses or other data from a large Web site or search engine. Bots are used to cull the data, which may be reorganized and presented in a unique manner that attracts visitors, the purpose of which is to make money on ads. The data might also be used for nefarious reasons, such as selling the information to spammers and cybercriminals.
Unless you have been industriously removing tracking cookies, chances are the ads you see when you are online are based on your browsing history. That's what tracking is—the method used by advertisers to study your online browsing habits. Having your email hosted by free services like Gmail also opens up your mailbox for scraping.
For instance, I wanted to get a camera for my daughter for Christmas. As soon as I started researching online, I noticed ads for cameras in my screen's right-hand column. Sony, Nikon, Best Buy. They popped up for weeks until stopping on Christmas Eve.
According to the New York Times Magazine, Target—one of my regular stores for groceries and household goods—has figured out a way to so finely tune its tracking that it might know you’re pregnant before the grandparents do, and it knows when to start sending ads for baby formula and diapers based on your previous shopping trips.
I confess this tracking unnerves me. It feels likes stalking. An article in Time suggests we are being profiled based on our online clicking and surfing and we don't know what conclusions are drawn based on the collected data. Additionally, the industry is so unregulated that lawmakers are now asking companies to explain what kind of information they've collected and how they intend to use it.
There is legislation pending to allow users to see any information that has been gathered, correct what's wrong and stop the collecting from that time onward.
Meanwhile, there are some solutions you can try. The newest version of Internet Explorer has Do Not Track as a default setting. (I installed this on my desktop.) Or you can visit www.aboutads.info/consumers, a kind of “do not call” site for ad trackers.
I considered installing a backup antispyware program, but I learned that I might just need to clear my browsing history and remove tracking cookies regularly. I found this comprehensive list of instructions on how to remove cookies from different browsers at wikiHow.
It may not get rid of them all, but if you are diligent, it should keep the stalkers at bay—at least for a while. As for alleged government eavesdropping, that's a whole 'nother story.
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