Shhh...Do you ever get the feeling someone is watching you? Not literally, in a peeping
Tom sense, but in an intangible way. Whereas you used to go shopping on a whim
or skim the newspaper, now the products you’re likely to buy and stories you’d
probably read are appearing with startling regularity whenever you go online.
Well, there’s good news and bad news. Those personalized ads aren’t really anything
sinister. What may concern you more, however, is the personal information you
assumed was private that’s hidden in the far-off corners of the internet. But there
are ways to regain control of your privacy, starting with demystifying how and why
such details end up there.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy www.avg.com 2
omewhere between the two
extremes is probably a healthy
balance. It’s good to have an
idea of what personal information may
have accrued over the years; after all,
everything that goes online stays there,
in some form, forever.
If you use social media, you’ve probably
already accepted the trade-off for your
‘free’ account is that you no longer solely
own or control any of the content you’ve
shared. But apart from the social media
aspect, are you aware of what personal
data has been collected about you, and
by whom? Or what can they do with it?
And whether you can do anything about
You might wonder, too, how the internet
seems to predict your every move. That
you’re a fan of crime fiction so you might
be interested in a book signing at your
local Barnes & Noble. That you’ve booked
flights and, since you always check
Miguel Cabrera’s RBI, you might want to
grab tickets for the Detroit Tigers when
they’re playing in the city you’re visiting.
It’s evident that things you once chalked
up as strange coincidences are anything
but. Still, do you know how ads seem to
be tailored to you? Is it really a matter of
concern, or is life made easier now that
your favorite products come right to you
every time you go online?
IntroductionHow often do you think about your digital privacy? Do you Google your name to find
out what others can see about you? Or does that seem like the conceited or paranoid
action of someone with too much spare time and an overactive imagination?
Jim Brock is Vice President, Privacy
Products at AVG. A privacy evangelist,
he blogs at http://blogs.avg.com/
aybe you haven’t used a
Netscape e-mail account in the
last decade, but that doesn’t
mean your information has disappeared
with your old e-mail address.
It’s likely there are dozens of data
aggregator sites teeming with your
personal details, which are made
available, for free, to anyone.
Every address you’ve ever called home,
sometimes with a Google Street View
map of your house. The full names and
ages of your immediate family: parents,
siblings, spouses. Your occupation,
where you went to school, if you’ve ever
been known by an alias. Data about your
If you care to see more about yourself,
or anyone, there’s lots to find for around
$40 or less. Phone numbers, e-mail
addresses, photos, videos, blog entries,
and comments, criminal or court records.
The aggregator website Spokeo promises
to “uncover information search engines
can’t find,” while rival PeekYou promotes
itself like it’s operating in your best
interests. “Your PeekYou Page
has been created and is maintained by
PeekYou but consists of an aggregate
of information from third-party public
sources,” its website says, adding ‘your’
pages contain “material that everyone
can find on the Internet because it has
been publicly divulged, either by you or by
authorized third parties.”
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy www.avg.com 3
Deep dataRemember the first personal e-mail account you set up, possibly with a
provider that no longer exists? Chances are whatever details you were
required to register at the time have been swept up by a data aggregator
website and syndicated.
It stands to reason that the more vocal you’ve been
online, the bigger digital presence you’ll have. That’s
true to some extent, but even someone who has never
ventured onto the internet will still have a digital
presence if they’ve ever bought or rented somewhere to
live, applied for identification, such as a driver’s license,
or done anything else that can be traced through public
records. Which is pretty much everyone over the age of 18.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy
Look hereYou may not be able to see every piece of data that online advertisers, merchants,
credit card companies and others have collected about you and your browsing and
buying habits (read on for more about targeted advertising). But there are ways to
find out what others can see about information you might prefer to keep private.
Google’s first tip, naturally, is to Google yourself. It also offers
a service called Me on the Web, where “you can get notified
when your personal data (your e-mail address or phone
number, for example) appears on the web.”
Data aggregator sites, such as PeekYou, compile personal
details you’ve registered online with other telling content, such
as your social site habits and website interests. Those details
are then lumped in with public records data to create a profile.
PeekYou also provides a list of similar data dumping grounds.
Or you could set up a Google Alert on yourself, which will send
you an e-mail any time your name appears on the Web.
Spokeo is another example of a data aggregator site, which
contains varying degrees of information about individuals - but
mostly at a price.
ave you ever registered to read an
online newspaper or get updates
on a particular subject? Given your
e-mail address to a real-world retailer
who was offering special deals? Joined an
online forum or mailing list? Registered
to vote, applied for any kind of license
or bought insurance? Signed an online
petition or made a charity donation?
In all these scenarios and more, you will
have drip-fed the internet with your
personal information. On the surface,
it’s no big deal that your full name, age
and home address have been registered
multiple times; but add to that any
information available on public records
and comments, photos, videos or other
content you’ve shared online, and the
digital skeleton of your details begins to
take on a fleshier appearance.
What’s more, every time you search or
visit the pages of many sites, you’re
creating a digital breadcrumb trail of
your preferences. Companies such as
Google can track your key search terms
to create an outline of your interests,
which you’ll see reflected in the sites
and accompanying ads delivered to you.
Social sites such as Facebook operate in
a similar manner, keeping tabs on your
‘likes’ and shares.
Then there are cookies, a term you’ve
probably seen but may find confusing.
Essentially, when you visit certain sites
cookies will attach to your browser to tell
it what you are interested in. The next
time you search for or visit a website
with similar content, the cookies will
‘remember’ you, so that if you were
looking at Adidas running shoes on one
site, the next one will display the same or
a similar product.
Your computer’s IP address or your
smartphone provide your location,
which, based on other information,
might flag you as a possible customer
for a new pizza place or a sports store
opening in your neighborhood. Bingo!
A targeted ad pops onto your screen.
While it may seem creepy, the idea
behind cookies is to improve your
experience, and the respective websites’
performances, by directing you to the
most relevant content. Cookies do not
retain any personal information, unless
a website has asked you to fill in things
such as your name or where you live.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy
Every clickHave you ever bought a domain name or set up a blog, website or wireless router?
Do you have a PayPal, Amazon, eBay or Freecycle account? E-mail? Netflix?
iTunes? Spotify? Picasa? Facebook? LinkedIn?
Who cares?So why does your information matter to anyone else, especially a faceless website?
In a word: money.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy www.avg.com 6
It’s safe to say that
been on the internet,
someone has probably
made a buck off you
ggregator websites make money
from those who pay for more
extensive searches. Social networks
make money from advertisers. Sites where
you may have registered your details,
including your favorite social channel, can
sell that information to third-party sites,
such as aggregators, or for marketing or
advertising purposes. The cookies that
clock your browsing habits tell retailers
and others with a financial interest what
content to dangle before you. Merchants,
interest groups and others you’ve given
your e-mail address to might send you the
occasional offer or membership perk, but
they’re profiting off you in all the ways
previously mentioned, and more.
It’s safe to say that wherever you’ve been
on the internet, someone has probably
made a buck off you.
But what about government agencies
and law enforcement bodies that may
be keeping tabs on keywords in e-mails
and on social media, visits to certain
websites, video link conversations, text
messages and other digital activities?
Such monitoring has long been an effort
to fight and foil crime, from fraud to
illegal pornography to terrorism. It can’t
be said how much of this information
is volunteered by Google, your e-mail
provider, social sites and others, and how
much they are pressured to give up.
If you’ve looked at it or written about it,
there’s every chance someone else has
been peering over your shoulder, whether
it’s an advertiser or the National Security
Agency. Nothing’s free in this world,
whether we’re paying in dollars or data.
Which is worth remembering the next
time you ‘like’ a post, upload a video or
make an ill-advised tweet.
Also called web or browser cookies, they are data that attach to
your browser and ‘remember’ the kinds of sites you’ve visited or
purchases you’ve made. Cookies help advertisers, online retailers
and others to build a digital profile of you so they can target ads to
your device. Cookies can store things such as passwords or credit
card numbers that a user has entered on a site, so the website will
‘recognize’ the user the next time they visit that site.
Data aggregator websites
Websites that pull together and build a profile from all data that
can be found on an individual, including personal details the
individual has registered online, public records and social content.
These websites offer some of this information, such as a person’s
full name, age and previous addresses, for free while selling more
specific details, such as exact home address, e-mail address and
phone number, for a small fee.
A setting that enables browsing without information such as
history, images, videos and text being stored in the cache. Privacy
mode can also disable the storage data in cookies, eliminating
targeted advertising. So if, for instance, your teenager enables
privacy mode in order to view death-metal videos on YouTube, those
won’t show up in your computer’s history and you’re less likely to
get targeted ads for Decibel magazine.
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Your computer’s Internet Protocal address identifies it and indi-
cates its general geographic location. Each computer has an IP
address that is unique within its local network.IP
Analysis of how a visitor uses a website and their implied prefer-
ences. Such information can be used to present individuals with
content they may be interested in. Tracking cookies compile a
record of an individual’s browsing history.
Delivering advertising content based on a website visitor’s sus-
pected habits or interests. By tracking users’ online activities and
building a demographic or behavioral profile, advertisers send
digital ads to a target market - for example, skincare product ads
to readers of teenage fashion magazines.
t won’t always be possible, of course,
but there are several methods for
reclaiming at least some of your digital
privacy. By creating a Google profile,
“you can manage the information - such
as your bio, contact details, and other
information about you” and then “...link
to other sites about you or created by
you. For example, you can link to your
blog, online photos in Picasa, and other
profiles such as Facebook and LinkedIn.”
Do you want to make yourself that
easy to find? Or do you actually want
to remove as much content as possible
and be flagged when information about
you appears on the internet? In either
case, you can get more information here:
It’s possible to ask aggregator sites
to remove your profile, but they may
make it difficult and it will certainly be
time consuming. As they point out, it’s
all information that exists online or is
accessible to anyone, so it’s going to be
an uphill struggle.
Some people feel cookies make their
time online more efficient while others
choose private browsing, which
deletes the cookies at the end of a
session. Also called privacy mode
or incognito mode, it can clear your
search history and keep other users
- particularly if you’re on a public
computer - from seeing what you’ve
been up to.
The browser tool Ghostery scans web
pages for cookies and other trackers, and
tells users which companies are using
trackers and how to block them. http://
Take chargeOnce the digital details you thought were private are laid bare on the screen, you
can decide how much you’re comfortable leaving in place and what you’d rather
try to remove.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy www.avg.com 8
ore information about private
browsing can be found through
a search, or AVG offers two
privacy tools. Its Do-Not-Track helps
you identify and block “websites that
are collecting data about your online
PrivacyFix is an app or “browser
extension that scans for privacy issues...
then takes you instantly to the settings
that you need to fix.” PrivacyFix also
warns of any new privacy issues so, for
example, “you know when sites like
Facebook change their privacy policies
or have privacy breaches.” http://www.
The search engine DuckDuckGo claims
it “does not collect or share personal
information.” Keep in mind, though,
that downloading toolbars, such as
for Yahoo, can be a free pass to your
It’s a good idea to regularly clear your
browser history, if only to keep your
web wanderings to yourself. If you’re a
regular YouTube viewer, go here, http://
www.youtube.com/feed/history, to clear
your history and get less predictable
results in the future.
An IP blocker, such as Tor, enables
users to visit blogs and websites
anonymously. Without an IP blocker, the
webmaster of sites you visit can track
your approximate location and service
provider, and possibly deduce your
Finally, always follow basic online
safety advice, such as installing safety
software; password or passcode
protecting all devices and keeping those
terms sufficiently obscure and safe; and
logging out of accounts. Remember,
too, to securely erase the hard drive
before disposing of any old device.
Be Safe Online Digital Privacy www.avg.com 9
Want to keep your browsing sessions private and block those websites seeking to
collect and store your data? Here’s how.
Learn more about internet security at www.avg.com
Join us on Facebook www.facebook.com/AVGFree
It can take a little getting used to the idea that the web - once either a workspace,
a tool of convenience or just a playground - is actually redefining privacy and the
beliefs we’ve traditionally held about what it means to be an individual. Most of us
are still learning, which can make the process all the more daunting.
But as with all things, knowledge is power. You’ve taken the initial steps toward
regaining control of your personal digital identity, and probably answered some
questions that had been nagging you since you first went digital.