Unless you do everything you can to ignore the more unsavory aspects of life online, you’re probably well aware that there are tons of companies tracking your movements online. The websites you visit, the keywords you search, and the apps you use are all tracked by numerous companies. And your data is routinely sold to advertisers and ad networks who want to show you ads that are likely to get you to click and to make purchases.
But do you know exactly who is tracking your movements online? Some of them are pretty obvious. You’re probably aware that Facebook is tracking not only what you do on the social network, but also what path you’re taking around the web. And you likely know that Google is watching what you search. But do you know which other companies are spying on your activity online? Read on to get a glimpse of how a wide range of different companies are tracking you.
1. Facebook and other social networks
It should surprise exactly nobody that Facebook is watching what you do online. (After all, that’s one of our top reasons to consider quitting Facebook.) Using Facebook hurts your privacy, regardless of the current state of its privacy policies. When you use Facebook, you’re not giving the social network access only to your activity on its site or app. You’re also enabling Facebook to track your activity around the web and giving the social network information that it can use to show you ads and try to sell you things. And, for the record, Facebook can track you whether or not you have a Facebook account.
Facebook’s tracking of your web history and app usage is enabled by websites that embed Facebook’s like button, offer its social login, or use its measurement and advertising service. That enables Facebook to share information about you with apps, websites, and services that are integrated with its social network. That includes advertising, measurement, and analytics services. That means that those companies can get information like your location, your gender, your email address, your phone number, your relationship status, and more without you even realizing that you’re handing the information over.
2. Google and other search engines
Google tracks you in numerous ways — whether you’re using the company’s search engine, signing in to Gmail, or using a device that runs the Android operating system. But the seemingly innocuous ways that you use Google’s search engine aren’t so harmless, after all. Robert Epstein reports for U.S. News that every time you search something through Google, it “allows the company to track your interests and, over time, build a detailed dossier that describes virtually every aspect of your character, food preferences, religious beliefs, medical problems, sexual inclinations, parenting challenges, political leanings and so on.”
That’s why there are numerous things that you probably shouldn’t search on Google. It’s a bad idea to search for things that clue Google in to your location. You should also avoid searching for information on medical conditions or on drugs. Google can combine your search history with more data about your identity to populate a profile that both Google and advertisers can use to get a pretty good idea of who you are, what you’re interested in, and what you’re most likely to buy.
3. Your internet service provider
You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your internet service provider (unless you hate your internet provider and are looking for creative ways to complain). But you might be surprised to know that your ISP is tracking you — and the company has access to much more of your personal data than you might think. As Darlene Storm reports for ComputerWorld, “Much like Google, your ISP knows pretty much everything about you. And ISPs share your personal information for marketing and other uses.”
As Storm points out, all of your network traffic goes through your ISP. The company can see all of your unencrypted traffic, and can even see private information that could point to medical conditions or financial problems when the data is encrypted. Even when you’re visiting encrypted sites, your ISP can see the domains of all of the sites that you use. In some cases, it can use a technique called website fingerprinting to identify the specific encrypted page that you’re visiting. Maybe it’s time to think about using a VPN.
4. Your wireless carrier
Another company that you may not realize is tracking your activity and selling the data to advertisers? Your wireless carrier. Kim Komando reports for USA Today that all of the “major cellphone carriers are more than happy to sell your information to advertisers and serve you targeted ads over their networks.” Depending on what kind of smartphone you use, you have a variety of options for limiting ad tracking or resetting the ID that advertisers use to identify you.
USA Today also notes that “carriers are working on ways to track you that you can’t stop.” You can opt to use Wi-Fi instead of cellular networks for browsing (but then your activity will just be tracked by your internet service provider instead of your wireless carrier). It’s safe to assume that your wireless carrier is tracking and selling your information, just like many of the other companies that are tracking you online.
5. Tracking companies, data brokers, and advertising networks
As NPR reported a few years ago, many popular websites gather information about their users’ behavior with the help of tracking companies, data brokers, and advertising networks. Using technology including cookies and beacons, these companies track where you’re going online and what you’re doing on the websites you visit, continually adding more information about you to a file. Some tracking devices are innocuous and enable a site to remember your password or preferences, for instance. But many are installed by companies you’ve never heard of. The data that these companies collect is “then sold on a stock market-like exchange to online advertisers.”
As Alexis Madrigal reports for The Atlantic, “Every move you make on the Internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your Internet journey goes unmonetized.” Madrigal explains that these data and advertising companies “form a shadow web of companies that want to help show you advertising that you’re more likely to click on and products that you’re more likely to purchase.” Your data may be “anonymous,” since your name isn’t attached to it. But the data is used to show ads that you’re more likely to click. “That’s the game, and there is substantial money in it.”
6. Your antivirus provider
Surprisingly enough, software that you install in order to keep snooping software off of your computer may, in fact, be tracking you itself. As Chris Hoffman reports for MakeUseOf, researchers found that popular antivirus applications assign your computer a unique identifier and send a list of all of the web addresses you visit to the software’s manufacturer.
As Hoffman explains, “If the antivirus finds a suspicious document, it will send the document to the antivirus company. Yes, your antivirus company might have a list of web pages you’ve visited along with your sensitive personal documents!” The researchers found that some antivirus apps also transmit your computer’s name, IP address, language, running processes, and Windows username to the antivirus company behind the software.