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So much Internet commerce, including newsmedia that have seen traditional revenue streams dwindle to a trickle, relies on gathering personal information from web users in ways that are largely invisible. As the web turns 25, I’m beginning to think that anyone who cares about information literacy should include a critical look at how our privacy is endangered and how to avoid sharing personal information when you don’t want to.

I’m not thinking in terms of warning students not to post embarrassing things on Facebook – they know more about Facebook privacy than I do and are conscious of what identity management means in an age of self-promotion and ubiquitous sharing. (Reading danah boyd's new book is an excellent way to get perspective on youth culture online.) But even so, students who grew up online are often appalled that our search results and social sites are choosing what to show us, and they aren’t always aware of the ways trackers embedded on webpages send information about us to third parties. My friend Gary Price, who complies the useful InfoDOCKET news feed, pointed me to some interesting privacy tools that I’ve been playing with. Here are some that I thought I'd share.

  • Adblock Plus is a trusty standby that claims 50 million viewers. Some of their funding comes from advertisers in their “acceptable advertising” program  which meet their criteria for being non-obnoxious. EasyList is an add-on to Adblock Plus that blocks trackers. 
  • I recently installed Ghostery, which does a nice job of identifying trackers and letting you decide which ones are okay. I have it set up so that it shows me what it’s blocking on any website I visit, or what isn’t blocked. It’s easy to turn blocking on or off or whitelist a site (meaning you’re okay with whatever they’re doing to watch you). It has an interestingly counterintuitive business model. You can choose to support them by letting them know what’s blocked where. They share this information with online marketing companies, but the information is anonymized. This is an opt-in process, not a default setting, and you can turn it on or off at any time. 
  • Gary recommended, which I tried out in beta in the past but (for reasons I can’t recall) decided to uninstall. It’s a hardy tracker of trackers and seems to identify more of them than Ghostery. It has a slightly more complex interface, but it’s quite easy to navigate and has a terrific visualization option that recently was featured on 60 Minutes in a scary segment on data brokers. It has a Disconnect Search option, too, which hides your IP address and makes your search history unavailable to search engines, your ISP, and the websites you visit. Its business model is fairly simple – some people who started it plunked money down to get it started and now they take donations.
  • A VPN (virtual private network) can also help confuse the enemy. Sometimes companies or institutions use them to connect intranets to the internet securely, but you can also sign up with a company to handle your traffic so that it looks as if you are located somewhere else. Even if I can’t be in, say, Sweden or Swindon or Singapore, my computer can look as if it is. VPNs are usually provided as subscription services. Gary pointed out a new German entrant in the market, ZenMate, which is currently using a freemium model, offering free accounts for personal use. It seems very easy to switch on and off and offers five locations where your internet traffic patterns can take a vacation even if you can’t. 
  • I have used the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s browser add-on, HTTPS Everywhere, for some time. HTTPS adds a layer of security to basic HTTP protocol and prevents “man in the middle” attacks by ensuring that you are actually communicating with the site you think you are talking to. It was developed with the Tor Project, which has been supporting privacy on the internet for quite a while.
  • I am trying out the Tor browser, which is a free download from the Tor Project. Tor routes internet traffic through thousands of volunteer relays, which makes it hard to directly trace people. You can run it off a memory stick if you want to carry anonymity in your pocket. Apparently the NSA has been taking whacks at Tor in a project codenamed Egotistical Giraffe. (They sure come up with some odd names.) You can read about it at The Guardian.

I can’t help but note that Disconnect Me located 36 trackers on that Guardian page I just linked to. I want to support news organizations that do invaluable journalism – and letting marketers track my use of the site is part of their current business model. You can whitelist sites if you want to – but then, do I want third parties to know so much about me? Nope. It’s a dilemma.

Do you have any favorite tools for staying anonymous online? Is this something that should be part of our information literacy efforts? Do you have hints for how I can set up my phone so it's not spying on me? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.But first you may have to tell Ghostery or Disconnect Me to let Disqus through, since if it’s blocked, your comments are likely to vanish into the ether. 

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