Most internet users are unaware that almost everything they do on the internet can be recorded, and that a surprisingly large amount of it actually is recorded.
Who Keeps Track of You?
Several types of organisation may have access to your online activities:
- Your ISP, the company that provides your internet connection, will of course be able to associate your personal details with the unique internet address which it allocates to you. Some ISPs have been known to monitor their customers’ online activity in order to expose their customers to relevant advertisements, or to earn a commission.
- Any companies which provide you with email services will store copies of your incoming and outgoing messages on their servers, and will be able to read those messages.
- The search engine companies you use will keep records of which searches originate from which internet addresses. If you use the search engine provided by your ISP, your searches will be able to be matched to your personal details.
- If you register with a social media company, it will be able to match your personal details to whatever information is posted by, to or about you.
- A public computer at an internet café is more likely than most to contain keylogging software, which will record everything you type, including your passwords. Keyloggers have been found in public library computers.
- A public wireless hotspot, such as a coffee shop, may have an insecure connection that will allow others access to your internet activity.
- If you have access to the internet at work, your employer may have installed keylogger software on the computer you use, and in any case will almost certainly be able to see which websites you visit and the content of any emails you send or receive.
- Some domestic broadband routers may be programmed to send information about internet traffic to the machine’s manufacturer.
- Depending on your level of paranoia, you might assume that secret police institutions will be able to monitor your emails and your website visits.
Data storage is cheap, and getting cheaper all the time, so you can expect any records of your internet activity to be retained for many years, if not indefinitely.
What Can You Do About It?
In general, not a lot. You must understand that if you venture online, you are connecting your computer to someone else’s computer. Certain aspects of your online behaviour will inevitably be visible to others.
Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do:
- For secure internet transactions, do not take the risk of using machines or internet connections over which you have no control. This includes internet cafés and computers at work.
- Be careful about posting information on social media websites. If you send information over the internet, you immediately lose all control over who has access to it and what they do with it. Social media websites may allow you to delete certain items of information, but the most that will do is to prevent the information spreading further, and even that is far from guaranteed. Once it’s out there, it has gone, and you can’t get it back.
- Prevent organisations tracking your online behaviour. The best way to do this is to control the two types of tracking files that some websites place on your computer: cookies and Local Shared Objects.
What Are Cookies, and What Do They Do?
Cookies, which are simple text files, are very commonly included among the files that make up most web pages. They allow a website to match a visitor’s computer to each of the pages within the website that are visited by that computer.
Cookies cannot cause any harm to your computer, and are normally programmed to expire within a short space of time. They have legitimate uses:
- Cookies can be a security feature. By allowing a website to identify each individual visitor’s computer, they can be used to forbid access to unauthorised computers. Accounts that require you to log in will not work in the absence of cookies.
- They allow online shopping websites to be certain that the customer who wants to buy this product from this page is or is not the same customer as the one who wants to buy that product from that page. All except the most basic shopping cart systems will not work in the absence of cookies.
- Cookies allow a website’s owner to compile useful statistics about how the website is used. Almost all cookies are restricted to single websites, and allow the owner to find out which pages are popular, which pages attract visitors for longer, and so on. The website’s owner will not be able to identify visitors personally.
Some cookies, however, especially those of large online advertising companies, exist on many different websites, and allow their owners to build a picture of web users’ online behaviour as they move from website to website. There is rarely, if ever, any benefit to the web users themselves from the existence of these third–party cookies.
How to Delete Cookies From Your Computer
All web browser software allows the user to delete cookies once the cookies have been installed, or, even better, to prevent the unnecessary ones being installed in the first place. Unfortunately, there is no consistent location for these controls, but they can usually be found in the Tools or View menus at the top of your browser screen. Look for options such as Preferences or Privacy. A modern web browser will allow you to choose any of the following settings:
- Delete any or all of the cookies that already exist on your computer.
- Accept or decline cookies from the sites you visit. For most websites, cookies are not essential.
- Accept or decline third–party cookies, which are placed on the sites you visit by other organisations, usually advertising and social media companies. As a general rule, all third–party cookies can safely be refused entry to your computer.
- Delete all cookies automatically when you close the browser. Unless you have a particular reason to do otherwise, this is the safest option.
Deleting Local Shared Objects
There is another type of file which acts in the same way as a cookie: Local Shared Objects, otherwise known as Flash cookies. LSOs are more pernicious than normal cookies, in that they are able to regenerate deleted cookies, and they cannot be removed by using normal browser controls. Instead, you will need to:
- Adjust the Flash settings on your computer according to Adobe’s instructions.
- Or install the Better Privacy add–on for the Firefox browser.
- Or install Ghostery, which can also delete normal cookies.
- Or don’t install Flash on your computer in the first place.
Now please eat this page!