Keeping Your Privacy on the World Wide Web

by 21st April 2012Online, Privacy

I recently attended a talk at the Nottingham and Derby BCS Branch on the imminent activation of the so-called "Cookie Directive" in British law. The law, in a nutshell says that, unless the information you are gathering from a person on your website is essential (such as a cookie in order for a shopping basket to work), you must allow that person to make an informed decision as to whether you may obtain that information from them. This could be as simple as putting a cookie on their machine to track their movements, using analytics, or asking them to fill in some personal details in order to access information.

The general consensus at the event was that only the big boys are likely to be prosecuted for not adhering strictly to the law, and for most companies, having a privacy notice such as the one on this website, would be sufficient. This law is due to go live on 26th May this year, so I’ve not only updated the europoint website, but as I am Webmaster for the Nottingham and Derby BCS Branch, I’ve also added a privacy notice there too.

Privacy is increasingly becoming a concern online for consumers (or in other words, anyone who isn’t a business) because our personal information is big business. Who we communicate with, what we buy, which websites we visit: all of this is fodder for tracking trends anonymously, but more worryingly for targeting you with specific advertising based on your online movements.

Whilst I use analytics on this website, and some third-party tools (Twitter, and AddThis) which collate and aggregate data, I’m perfectly happy for people to not want to be tracked on my website in this way: after all, I don’t like being tracked, so I can hardly refuse the same opportunities to visitors here.

Behavioural advertising: tracking your movements

Luckily, solutions have been around for a while, and a universal, W3C standard is starting to be implemented in browsers. Whenever you visit a website, your browser sends requests in the form of "headers" asking for various information to be sent back. A new header, called "Do Not Track&quot, requests that the website you are visiting does not track you for any purpose. Whilst this is still in the pipeline, and almost certainly not universally adopted, you can switch this functionality on in most modern browsers. The most simple way is to visit the Mozilla Do Not Track website to enable it.

You can also opt out of Google Analytics in a number of ways: for any browser, you can go to the Google Analytics Opt Out page and download something for your browser.

For Google Chrome, you can use a couple of extensions to opt out of advertising: the Google Keep My Opt-Outs and Google IBA Opt-Out tool. There is also a more aggressive blocker called Do Not Track Plus which will hide certain elements, but also allows you to configure whether a particular website can track you or not.

Getting rid of adverts altogether

Of course, that just stops websites from tracking you but doesn’t remove the advertising that is becoming all pervasive. I acknowledge that advertising helps to keep a lot of websites running for free, and without advertising we would either be paying for content or have a far less interesting World Wide Web. Having said that, I just find advertising intrusive, and have absolutely no interest in them. There are a number of tools out there that let you block adverts from ever appearing, and my favourite for Google Chrome also allows me to get rid of sections of websites that may not be advertising, but are just plain irritating, such as the Facebook chat column.

For Google Chrome, AdBlock is a fantastic little utility that allows you to select precisely which adverts or content you never want to see on a website. A corresponding extension, AdBlock Plus is available for Mozilla Firefox, as is AdBlock for Safari. And again, Opera has a similar option in the form of Opera AdBlock. Unfortunately, there is next to nothing available for Microsoft Internet Explorer, at least not for free. I would suggest instead that you read another of my articles, "Time To Abandon Internet Explorer" and give up altogether on Microsoft’s browser, and move to something more secure and up-to-date.

I have no doubt that there will always be attempts to circumvent our desire to be free of advertising and having our movements tracked, but whilst you have the opportunity, and if you wish do so, I heartily recommend taking the steps outlined above. Oh, and please stop using Internet Explorer.

Matthew Cunliffe

Matthew Cunliffe


Matthew is an IT specialist with more than 24 years experience in software development and project management. He has a wide range of interests, including international political theory; playing guitar; music; hiking, kayaking, and bouldering; and data privacy and ethics in IT.


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