Google, Microsoft, AOL and other big companies have agreed to install a "do not track" button in Web browsers to make sure that you can surf the Web with an assured amount of privacy. It's a big step for the industry -- but until this button arrives, how can you assure yourself a little more privacy online?
The "No Track" button would stop companies from using data about your Web browsing habits to customize ads for you. They have also agreed not to use the data for employment, credit, health-care or insurance purposes. For obvious reasons, that type of usage feels intrusive.
Companies would still be able to use your general browsing patterns for market research or product development. And companies like Facebook could still track your use of the Like button to gather data.
This button will be opt out, which means you have to find it and turn it on if you want some privacy. Most privacy options work like that -- you're tracked unless you ask not to be. But until this becomes a reality, you do have some options to ensure yourself some more privacy now.
Start with your browser. Most browsers have a privacy option but you have to find it in the browser settings. For instance, to do this on Google Chrome (my browser of choice), go to your Preferences menu, click Under The Hood, and uncheck all the options under Privacy if you do not want to be tracked.
Clear out the cookies. A cookie is used to send information about where you have visited to the browser, so it can easily track you. If you want your information cleared, use the settings in your browser and clear out all cookies regularly.
See who's watching. Another great way to find out what companies are watching you is to use a service called Ghostery.com. This services alerts you to the cookies currently watching you. Run Ghostery while you're browsing your favorite websites, and you might be surprised to see the five or six different companies watching you.
Stop them from tracking you. You can also cherry pick the sites that you want to be sure are NOT tracking you. Web sites such as PrivacyChoice.org will let you select sites that you absolutely do not want tracking your habits. Of course this site can only request that the sites you visit do not track you. The sites then have to comply, so this isn't a fool-proof method -- but it is a good start.
Play it safe. And of course, use prudence when surfing the Web. Phone numbers and social security numbers are NOT for social networking sites like Facebook. And if you use a shared computer with friends or family members, remember that the Web sites you visit will affect the advertising that others see on that browser -- so don't visit embarrassing sites unless you want others to know about it.
Or unless you're a pro at browsing in private.