By Joe Callison
13 March, 2018
If you browse the internet or use a cell phone, you are leaving digital tracks that can be monitored by others for financial gain or other purposes. These tracks include information obtained from your internet viewing and searches and location information from your cell phone usage. Some tracking you have no control over. A cell phone that is turned on connects periodically with cell phone towers which record the “cell,” a small geographical area, that the phone is located in.
This is the basic way cell phones function to be able to transfer calls from one cell to another as you roam, Cell phone companies can, and do, use this information to send you targeted ads for their services or sell the data in anonymized form to other companies for their use. Your cell phone leaves a location history that can be used by others from just being turned on, whether you are using the phone or not.
Smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers leave digital tracks of their location in addition to other data obtained from use of internet browsers and other programs or apps. Even if the device does not have a GPS or it is disabled, approximate location can still be determined from the IP address of the device or the server it is connected to unless a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is used. Browsing tracks are left in the form of “cookies” for each site you visit, including all of the miscellaneous advertisers displayed on each page whether you click on them or not. You do have some control over what cookies can be collected during your browsing, either through your internet browser settings or by use of browser extensions to block cookies. Generally any web site that you do any kind of transactions on will require that cookies be allowed for that particular web site.
Blocking location tracking and cookies is a privacy right, but can affect the continued availability of free internet services and apps you may enjoy that depend on revenue from advertisers that value the information gained by tracking.
You should also be aware that in addition to legitimate users of digital tracking data, there are many bad guys out there. Some tracking is planted in hijacked web sites or malware, but some can be from just installing an interesting looking free app. Flashlight and weather apps have been notorious examples for getting people to install them just so they can collect location and other data from users or to open doors for malware to be planted. Just because an app is obtained from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store does not mean they are safe either, especially if they are newly listed.
For some interesting insight into the world of digital location tracking, browse through some of the information from the web sites of tracking companies such as:
For information on some of the popular browser tracking blockers, see the following:
Or for non-tracking browser search engine alternatives, see:
You can easily check your browser current cookie settings by going to the following web site:
This web site represents an alliance of many (but far from all) of the companies that collect cookies and offers to give you the option of opting out of any or all of the companies in the alliance, but you must accept third party cookies for it to work, which means you will still get cookies from the companies that are not in the alliance.
You can either accept third party cookies and opt out of ads through YourAdChoices, or go to your browser advanced settings and look for cookies under privacy settings and set to block third party cookies. Note that opting out or blocking cookies must be done individually for each browser you use.
If you sign in to your browser with a Google, Firefox, Microsoft or Apple account, or use an Android or Apple smartphone, then there are account settings for privacy that you can review for any settings on ad preferences, browser history and location history that apply when you are signed in. Some social media sites, such as Facebook, also have account settings for ad preferences and tracking while browsing their site.
Digital tracking does not benefit just those doing the tracking or buying the data. Some features may be provided that are beneficial for the user. Each user must weigh the tradeoffs of privacy and convenience and make their own decisions regarding digital tracking. It is good to be an informed consumer, though.