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Don’t follow my tracks

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Anyone who remembers the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” will remember when the two outlaws had a band of lawmen on their trail and kept asking, “Who are those guys?” Our erstwhile heroes tried everything they could think of to lose the posse but couldn’t. It seems Butch and Sundance were being tracked by an Indian named Lord Baltimore about whom it was said could track anyone, even over rock.

Well, folks, the Internet is a lot like Lord Baltimore. 

While most of us feel like it should be private, after all, Web browsing is just you and your computer in the privacy of your own home, the reality is far different. There are lots of people out there interested in tracking every move you make on the Internet, and some of them are really good at it.

Our Federal Communications Commission has called for enhancing privacy online by providing a “do not track” option and browser companies like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla are taking steps to make it more difficult for advertisers and others to follow your movements on the Web. No one knows right now whether or not it will really make any big difference, but at least someone is trying.

Like so many other things in life, tracking you on the Internet is simply a matter of money. 

The money that keeps so much of the Internet operating comes in large part from advertisers. 

And, the more an advertiser knows about you, the more ads it can target you with that suit your likes and dislikes which, in turn, boosts the success rate in selling you products and services.

If you have one of those grocery store “preferred customer” or “thank you” cards then you are allowing the marketer to keep a record of everything you buy, which helps them to decide what products to stock and what promotional offers with which to hit you. 

Where it differs from the Internet is that you have agreed to this exchange in advance. Probably in return for some price savings.

On the Internet, however, there are plenty of people trying to follow your cyber footprints without your express consent.

It works something like this: Downloading a website involves an exchange of information.

First of all, when your browser contacts a website, it sends a little bit of information about itself called a “header.” That includes the type and version of operating system and browser you’re using along with your computer’s Internet Protocol Address, which – like a telephone number – allows your computer to communicate with others. In return, the website sends your browser, in addition to the text, pictures and multimedia, little bits of computer data called cookies that supposedly help the site work better, remembering your preferences or log-ins.

In addition to the helpful things they do, cookies allow websites to gather information about you. Google, for instance, develops a list of ad preferences for people who use its search engine. You can look this up, by the way and edit it. Go to www.google.com/ads/preferences. In addition to cookies you pick up from sites you purposely visit, your computer also picks up cookies from third parties on those sites. These advertisers, or profilers, can then follow you around the Internet like Lord Baltimore did Butch and Sundance. They are able to construct surprisingly accurate profiles from the information they gather. Profiles such as age, gender, location and other personal information associated with a particular computer.

Among the browser companies adding privacy features, Mozilla announced its new Firefox 4 browser will allow users to select a “Do Not Track” choice in its advanced options. Now, when you visit a site the browser will send a message you do not wish to be tracked, but whether or not the site will comply is an entirely different matter.

When Microsoft releases its Internet Explorer 9, users will find a different tactic which allows users to add so-called “tracking protection lists” compiled by various Web privacy companies to limit advertisers and marketers that track and profile Web users.

So, just remember your browsing the Internet is not a private matter conducted in the privacy of your home on your computer. 

There are a lot of greedy eyes following your trail hoping to sell you lots of stuff you may or may not need.

When it comes to the Internet, there is no such thing as privacy.

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