Stump the Geeks

PrivacyChoice helps 'track the trackers' online

November 25, 2012 

Whether we realize or not, every time we launch our browsers and visit our favorite websites, we’re swapping information.

Many of the same servers offering up content from cat photos to cooking tips are tracking where we’ve been and how we interact online, storing that information in a database and selling it in aggregate to the highest bidder.

But exactly what these sites are collecting and how they’re sharing it with others is a little harder to figure out – especially for an average user unwilling to wade through privacy policy jargon.

Jim Brock knows this better than most. As an executive at Yahoo in the early 2000s, he saw firsthand how advertising companies were beginning to capitalize on the intelligence they could gather about online consumers.

That’s one of the reasons Brock founded PrivacyChoice, a company that “tracks the trackers” with a curated database of more than 450 ad and data companies and their privacy policies.

Now, users can harness that database to analyze their own privacy settings with Privacyfix, a free browser extension for Chrome and Firefox.

Since it launched in early October, 200,000 have used the application to learn more about the risks (and rewards) of being tracked. And it’s that guided approach, Brock said, that’s resonating with people who want to make their own privacy decisions.

“We don’t sell fear. We don’t try to say it’s all bad,” Brock said in a phone interview. “What we want you know is that you have a choice.”

Step-by-step guide

Take Facebook. The popular social networking site gives users several privacy options that impact their experience online.

Do you want people to find you easily? Do you want your endorsements of products and companies to be visible to friends? Should Facebook share profile information with sites you visit for more relevant ads?

The answers will depend on the user. But Privacyfix walks you through these settings step by step on both Facebook and Google, explaining the pros and cons of opting out of a particular tracking method. If you want to make a change, the application navigates your browser to the relevant setting.

“We don’t turn any buttons for you,” Brock said. “You have to do it, but we figured out a way to be right next to you.”

Privacyfix also examines your browsing history to identify sites known for sharing user data. The extension then allows you to automatically send a removal request to each company with the click of a button.

Educating, not scaring

But I think the most valuable part of Privacyfix is its tracking cookie analysis. By matching up your cookie file with companies in the PrivacyChoice database, the extension shows which companies are tracking you and how they rate when it comes to good privacy practices.

In one step, you can clear out those tracking cookies and spare the more valuable ones that keep you logged into email and social networking accounts. It’s a more surgical strike, Brock said, than the typical browser option of deleting all your cookies.

All of this, by the way, is done in your browser, so no information about your browsing history or cookie file ever reaches the PrivacyChoice servers.

Even if you’re not a stickler about online privacy, this extension is definitely worth a try. Tracking cookies and websites that share your data aren’t all bad, but learning more will help clear up a little bit of the mystery and empower you to take control.

“It’s easy to scare someone into pushing a lot of buttons,” Brock said. “It’s a lot harder to educate people and get them to the place they want to be.”

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