The Overhyped Online Privacy Issue

Kirtan Thakkar

Kirtan Thakkar

Life is all about learning

Few days ago, I ran into a discussion with my friend about the online privacy issue. How they track us? In which way they track us? What information do they collect? There were so many questions. Let’s discuss about it in some details.

First, let’s talk about the browser tracking.

Browser Tracking

When we talk about browser, Chrome or Firefox comes to our mind. (Let’s spare Internet Explorer/Edge from this). What are the ways a browser tracks us or the websites we visits tracks us. There are many. Trust me. There are so many ways it can track you.

Check out this Chrome’s Privacy Settings page to learn about the settings they provide. They lists down the following services under the Computer section:

  • Use a web service to help resolve navigation errors
  • Use a prediction service to help complete searches and URLs typed in the address bar or the app launcher search box
  • Predict network actions to improve page load performance
  • Automatically report details of possible security incidents to Google
  • Protect you and your device from dangerous sites or files
  • Use a web service to help resolve spelling errors
  • Automatically send usage statistics and crash reports to Google
  • Send a ‘Do Not Track’ request with your browsing traffic

You may look at this and can turn this features on and off any time. They have the explanation of each and every setting on the page mentioned above.  Let’s talk about some.

Imagine, how many times you have used the prediction service. To be clear, when you start typing in your browser for some site or search, the list shown below after each key you press uses the prediction service. For this to work, they need to send each keystroke to Google to provide you the better results. This is necessary. If you will disable this you need to enter the whole query and hit enter for the search results to appear. It takes more time than usual.

Some of the data received by Google is used for security purposes. Have you encountered a situation where you have too many Download buttons and you don’t know which one to press? It had happened many times. All Download button other than the hidden actual one downloads the malware on your system and it is dangerous. You can read about this on Chrome’s security blog here. So, it’s not always true that, they just want to track us. The data collected provides better security too.

Let’s talk about crash reporting. It’s not just limited to any browser. Even when any software crashes, you may be prompted to send the crash report to developer. We have denied almost all the time. I have also denied all the time till I understood why it is important. When I started developing an application, I heard from my users that the app randomly crashes sometimes. However, I have no idea why that was happening. I asked some to provide me the details like when, on which page, what button you pressed etc. But, the answers were not enough for me to solve the bug. Then, I embedded the automatic crash reporting in my app and that crash reports were so helpful, that it took me hardly 10 minutes to identify and solve the bug that was causing a crash only on some versions of Android. So, it takes hassle out from the user’s way of doing it and makes it easier for a developer to provide better software. It is not meant to collect details of a particular user, but it helps in providing better software to the users.

Now let’s talk about the website tracking.

Website Tracking

Websites need some data to store in browser in order to function properly. Why do they need to store? When you log in to a website it needs to store some information into a browser in form of Cookies, which helps website to identify which user is logged in. The case is not limited to identify logged in user. You can find out the usage and why it used in details on

However, they may track you with cookies or in any other way when you visit a website. Google Analytics is what we are talking about. It is a service which helps website owners to get into the details how users are interacting with their websites. It doesn’t identify an individual, but it collects some data like, how many pages you have visited, how much time you have spent on pages, from which city you have visited etc. This data helps website owners to improve the experience of users on their websites. But, not to worry much. The data collected does not identify you who you are. Data Confidentiality section in the Analytics Help Section page says:

The Google Analytics terms of service, which all Google Analytics customers must adhere to, prohibit sending personally identifiable information (PII) to Google Analytics. PII includes any data that can be used by Google to reasonably identify an individual, including (but not limited to) names, email addresses, or billing information.

Google Analytics data may not be shared without customer consent, except under certain limited circumstances, such as when required by law.

Even if they don’t collect any personally identifiable information, you may be concern about the data being collected by websites you visit. Don’t worry. There is an Chrome Extension for Google Analytics Opt-out by Google which blocks sending of data to Google Analytics.

This doesn’t stop all website tracking. The extensions you have installed might have the permissions to have the access of what you visit. They may use the information to personalize services for their users. To find out what they collect and how they use, you need to find out their privacy policy.

Now let’s talk about the big player Google. If you search on google by logged into your google account, each of your search queries are stored. You may access it from this page. Google Now have provided you the cards regarding your browsing history. Yes, based on your search results some great articles may  have appear in Stories to Read section in Google Now.

To provide you the article you may be interested in, they need to know what you are browsing or what you are searching. That’s how they automatically provide you the things you may be interested in. You may opt-out from Google Now settings page if you are not interested in it.

Talking to Google Now often? Your voices are recorded everytime you speak to Google in to order to provide you better experience. Why it is used? Here is an explanation from Google:

Voice & Audio Activity helps recognize your voice and improve speech recognition by storing your voice and audio inputs to your account (for example, when you say “Ok Google” to do a voice search).

There is an option to disable this from your My Account Privacy Settings page. It’s always your choice to decide to opt-in or not.

Enjoy Google Maps? So do I. You may have been prompted on your device to let Google periodically collect and store anonymous location information. What do they do with my location information? As they say it will be anonymous (It will be saved only to your timeline if you have enabled save the locations you visit and will not be shared with anyone), they may use it to show traffic information while you travel through Maps. You can choose a different way to avoid that traffic. How Google knew there is a traffic? From devices stuck on that location reporting anonymous location information to Google. That is how it is useful. From that collected data, they help us to choose routes to avoid traffic. However,  you can always choose to opt-out from the locations settings on your device.

The Location History or Timeline (if enabled) can get you in the details of the places you visit. You can always delete the data from their settings page. But, it provides great insights of your travel automatically.

You should consider visiting your Google account’s privacy settings page to control what information Google collects about you.

Moving forward, one another thing you might need to consider.

Ads Tracking

Google personalizes the ads experiences based on your interest. Google calls it interest-based ads. Google may use and collect various data it had about you to show you ads of your interest. You may not find it useful. You can opt-out from this. Find this detailed guide from Google, how can you opt-out from interest-based ads.

You must be hating ads. But, that’s the only source of income for the small sites like this one. That’s why I would not recommend you to use any ad blockers. Or If you do for the sites with extremely annoying ads all over the page, consider disabling ads (add an exception) for the sites you love.

Once, I experienced interesting example of  ad tracking. I was searching for a RAM for my laptop on Amazon. After some time, I was browsing through some interesting articles. I noticed an ad from Amazon for the related RAM I was looking for. I quickly searched about how amazon ads appeared on other page of the same product I was looking. This is called Re-marketing. Google explains it as:

Remarketing helps you reach people who have visited your website or used your app. Previous visitors or users can see your ads as they browse websites that are part of the Google Display Network, or as they search for terms related to your products or services on Google.

However, you can control the ads settings how you will be shown ads from this page while you are signed out. This page coves the ads we have just talked. This page has the settings when you are singed in. This article can help you to disable Remarketing ads from amazon.

So, basically you can control almost everything. Not everything. But, don’t get too much bothered about it. Control what you feel right for you. You have the options to opt-out and opt-in on most of the cases. Some details helps developer to make the service better or make the service more relevant to you. That is not case always that they just want to track or steal the information. You may contact them for clarification if you feel something is not right.

If you are not satisfied with the information they collect, you should stop using it. I have once felt that and started using anonymous browsers. But the experience was worst. I have once read a comment on the discussion regarding this on some forum, that if you don’t want to be tracked, the only option is, you should stop using Internet.

This topic has diverse opinions and is largely discussed on the Internet. But, I feel you should not be too much worried. As I said earlier, choose the right settings for you and start using it without hesitation to feel the power of Internet.

That’s all folks!