Photo by Irina Pechkareva
I recently saw an article on LinkedIn by a man who said he was a marketing expert about privacy and security on the Internet. I was struck by two things about the article. The first was that I wondered how a man who is supposed to know about how marketers use analytics to gather information about Internet traffic and website visitors for Internet marketing purposes could not mention anything about that in an article about computer privacy. The second was that in the article he seemed very confused and didn’t seem to know what he was talking about.
I thought to myself that if a person who is supposed to be an expert doesn’t understand the most basic information about Internet security then what hope is there for most Internet users. Perhaps the man had a stake in keeping people ignorant about how companies track information or perhaps he wasn’t such an expert as he pretended to be. So I will be happy to share the knowledge I have acquired over the years from both Internet marketing and working in online banking. With some basic knowledge a person can feel much safer when being on the Internet.
At a certain point in helping people with their Internet issues I became aware that people often do not even know the difference between an Internet service provider and a web browser. Maybe this is understandable since both of these are things that are used to get on the Internet. I will explain. An Internet service provider is the company that a person pays in order to have Internet service. This company assigns a person an I.P. address when they access the Internet. I.P. stands for Internet provider. This number is not only trackable it even shows what country and region of a country of where the Internet user is. A web browser is a piece of software known as a program or application that is installed on a person’s computer. It is used to bring up a “window” or a “page”, often known as a “home page” that people use to go to websites on the Internet. Web browsers usually have well known names such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome or with a Mac computer Safari.
Unfortunately these home pages often have a place to type into prominently on the page that says “search” on it. First time Internet users often use this to type in a website address only to find a listing of search results. Sometimes they get frustrated trying to get to the right website. That is why they have to go to the top of the page for a white area that says address off to the side. In this white area or “field” in the left it says http://. Here is where an exact website address is typed to go directly to a website.
Even though people can start typing the address beginning with www or even just type something like website.com officially most website addresses start with http:// or https://. This website address is often referred to as a URL which stands for universal resource locator. The “s” in https:// literally stands for “secure”. Should you be worried if a website address does not start with https://? No, it is only necessary on websites that collect or contain sensitive private information on visitors for required reasons. This would include for instance bank websites that users access for online banking with a login to view their financial information. This would include any website with which a person can login into that would include private information including financial account information such as a credit card number. The typical website that you would visit to just get news, information or entertainment is not to worry about. The “s” in https:// is a security certificate that a website owner pays for through their domain name service provider. This is the company they use to be able to put a website on the Internet. Websites that take payments online always have a symbol showing the company that certifies the security of the website.
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This leads to a very important principle about websites gathering information on visitors to their websites that is very difficult to understand. People often speak of temporary Internet files and something called “cookies” getting on their computers from activity on the Internet. The first issue is the temporary Internet files. Often these files are necessary because of people’s activities on the Internet. This could include an Active X file to complete some action on the Internet. This could include a file that helps a person download something from the Internet that they need. The confusion is in the fact that there is one type of file that goes directly on the computer. The other type of temporary Internet file is only on the web browser. This is confusing indeed because the web browser itself is a program that is on a person’s computer so one could say either type of temporary file is on the computer. The difference becomes clear however once a person understands how to remove these temporary Internet files. The most important reason for removing them is to free up memory on the computer. Excessive activity on the Internet will cause more and more of the memory to be used up. This will make a person’s computer and Internet very slow and difficult to use.
The type of temporary Internet file that needs to be cleared from the computer the most often is the type that is on the Internet browser. Typically a person pulls up the home page from which they start at or they can do this while they are on a website. At the very top of the window there is a toolbar. This toolbar should be the toolbar of the browser itself, not an added toolbar. That is if the browser is Internet Explorer it should be the Internet Explorer toolbar. From here a person typically goes to “tools” and clicks on it. A menu of options will appear. In this menu a person is looking for “Internet options” or “clear cache”. Sometimes, including on cell phone Internet browsers, a person will go to “history”, press the button for options and click “clear all”. Sometimes a person is looking for “delete temporary Internet files”. This will clear up a lot of memory on the computer and get rid of unwanted files that may still be there from getting on an undesirable website that may be harmful. This should make a computer work faster and more efficiently.
Sometimes when people do this they will, also, see the option to clear cookies at the same time. Should a person clear cookies? It is a good idea sometimes to clear cookies as well. However keep in mind that some websites track returning visitors for legitimate reasons. For instance if a person clears cookies they may find that the websites that they go to are asking them to answer security questions to prove who they are. This is because websites add cookies to a person’s “web browser” in order to know if it is the same person logging into the website from the same computer. Some websites such as social networking websites require a user i.d. and password to log in but will allow the option to stay logged in so that a person doesn’t have to login each time. This only works when a person is on the same computer using the same browser because this process works with cookies on the web browser. A person can be on the same computer but if they use a different web browser then they will have to login. So what is the logical thing for most people to do? Usually it is a good idea to clear the browsing history and the cookies at times but it is more important to clear the history, temporary Internet files or cache whichever it is called more frequently. Sometimes people have a little box checked in their Internet options on their browser that says “clear browsing history on exit”. This means that they will always be asked security questions and have to login each time on websites. The websites will not even automatically put in their user i.d. for logging in because it will not recognize them. If a person wants a website to remember them they need to uncheck this box.
What about the other type of temporary Internet files that get directly on the computer? It is a good idea at times to do a complete clean up of unneeded files on the computer to free up memory and keep the computer running well. This will, also, keep a computer safer. To do this a person has to click on the start button of their computer and get to the control panel of their computer. From here a person can click on the hard drive which is usually the “C drive” and see how much of their computer memory is being used. In the control panel depending on what type of computer and what kind of operating system a person has to find a way to delete temporary files. This could be tricky because a person does not want to delete the program files that are necessary for the operation of the computer. Fortunately some computers have a user friendly “disk cleanup” option that clears temporary files very easily. Clearing the temporary Internet files and temporary files from the browsers and from the computer will free up memory and improve a computer.
Once a person understands these basic principles the questions about websites spying on people and tracking them still remains. There is of course more involved than what I have described so far but it is important to understand these basics first. What about what I was describing about marketers collecting information for Internet marketing purposes? Internet marketers use sophisticated systems known as analytics only to be able to track visitors to their websites. Analytics systems can see a visitor’s I.P. address, the country or with more sophistication what region of the country the visitor is from. They can see a person’s Internet service providing company, what web browser they were using to visit the site and if they clicked on a link from another website to get to the site. When a website has a link to another website on it this is known as a “referrer” website. With analytics an Internet marketer can see if a person got to their website from a search engine or social networking website. By keeping track of I.P. addresses and using cookies analytics can track how long a person is on the website, whether they clicked to go to other pages on the website and if the same person returns to the website. With analytics companies keep track of the visitors they get with paid advertising or with free website traffic such as through search engine searches, social networking website searches or from their own social media web pages or blogs. They want to see what is more effective and cost effective. They want to know what their ROI is (Return On Investment) for their labor costs and advertising costs.
This should make people feel better that this tracking is for legitimate business purposes but it seems like it could be abused. On the less scary side people used to be concerned about getting their physical mailboxes filled with junk mail by getting on mailing lists with people selling information about them to other companies such as their shopping habits. Now people are concerned about basically the same thing with being on the Internet. Keep in mind that many people go to physical businesses (known as brick and mortar businesses) and join shopping clubs to get rewards and discounts. When they do this they willingly giving up an email address, phone number, name and physical address to get a magnetic card to swipe at the merchants’ locations that collects information on their buying habits.
When people sign up for a social networking website they are asked their date of birth, gender and marital status. This may sound harmless but this is for marketing purposes. I actually find many of the ads I see on these websites very offensive because I know they are aimed at single men. What is scarier are some of the people who set up profiles on these websites for illicit purposes. In the end a lot of our security on the Internet depends on our own personal decisions. If we happen on a scary site it is important to remember that the shorter of a time a person is on the site the less trackable they are to the owners of the website and the less likely they will be to get something harmful on their computer or web browser. It is good to know about clearing the temporary files, cache and cookies on the browser when this happens.
Many are concerned that the companies that provide web browsers, computer operating systems and even computer security systems could abuse their power. Many of the ads on websites are targeted by sophisticated systems provided by Google advertising services. This means that if you visit a website that is an online store by clicking on an advertising link you may notice that ads for that store keep showing when you are on one of your favorite websites such as a social networking website. If you do an Internet search you may notice you keep getting ads that have something to do with your search. Of course if you read an article on a website about a certain subject there will be related advertising. This is how publishing and advertising works. This is why some people are concerned about using a web browser called Google Chrome because of how much information it can collect since it is a program installed on someone’s computer. Since Google has Google Maps it may ask for permission to track your location on your smart phone to locate you when using the maps. It will mention something about how it can better target ads for local businesses to you when it does this. This doesn’t seem so scary if someone thinks that maybe they would like to know something about the local businesses in the area they are in. Some businesses such as banks have difficulty with Google Chrome because of the way it is constantly updating itself when someone is on the Internet. This makes it impossible for the website developers to stay compatible with the browser so some websites may become difficult to use on Chrome.
There are even more concerns with some computer and Internet companies. Some people believe that Apple devices with touch screens capture people’s fingerprints in order to track people, devices such as iPhones and iPads. This does not seem so far fetched when one considers that companies are advocating using fingerprint recognition or retina scans to identify a user for security reasons. In fact Android has just come up with a phone that unlocks by recognizing the user’s fingerprint. Some have said that the main security service used by McIntosh users, McGafee, has denied access to certain websites, warning users they are harmful because they did not like the investigative journalism that is on the websites. Many people prefer Firefox which is a web browser provided by a non-profit organization committed to Internet privacy.
Probably a lot of people do not feel they have too much to worry about with privacy if law enforcement does not ask for records that would bring up their information. Many would feel that if they are not doing anything wrong they have nothing to worry about. Others question a world in which law enforcement could have access to their emails and other Internet activity without having to have a court issued warrant or being able to show probable cause for such search and seizure. Some would say this is necessary for security. Others would say the government or certain factions within government could spy on political opponents and political dissenters. In fact those engaged in criminal activity could be using spying to protect themselves from being exposed. Some have said that there is a patent on software that can turn on a camcorder or microphone on Apple computers even when the computer is off and spy on people. It is believed that the NSA (National Security Agency) has used this.
Probably for most people the most likely threat for them is hackers. Hackers can access computer information by cruising through neighborhoods with a laptop computer looking for people who are on the Internet with a wireless network that is not secured and so does not require a login with a password for a person to get onto the wireless network. A person was doing this in my neighborhood and was able to get user i.d.s, passwords and security question answers to login to people’s online banking and transfer funds from their accounts. The money was then quickly wired to Africa. Sometimes when people are on the Internet a type of malicious software will be put on their computer that can capture their key strokes on their computer keyboard in order for the criminals to be able to hack their accounts and steal funds. In online banking I was successfully able to stop fraud by seeing I.P. addresses that were from Africa so having the ability to track visitors to a website in some cases can be a very good thing.
Sometimes people who commit fraud commit identity theft. They can go through someone’s trash to find bank statements and get account information. With a person’s name, address, phone number, social security number and driver’s license number along with a bank account number they can answer a lot of questions to get information on people’s accounts by calling customer service or they can even set up online banking for a person who did not have online banking. If they can hack someone’s existing account they can call customer service for help if they get locked out because of a security question. Sometimes a person who has the access to commit fraud is someone that a person knows, perhaps even a family member who would have their personal information.
Many have heard of a notorious computer virus known as a Trojan. This type of virus gets on people’s computers when their Windows operating system is downloading updates while they are on the Internet. When this happens a person will notice slowness and problems with their computer. Then they will have a warning pop up on their screen with a loud, harsh, ringing noise. The warning message will say that their computer has a malicious software on it and that they need to buy a computer security system to protect themselves from it. This is a scam. This message is not coming from your computer. It is coming from the virus. If people click on this message it will take them to a website that wants their credit card number to purchase this security software. This will not take away the virus on their computer. A person will only be robbed. When this happens a person should do a full virus scan on their computer. The virus scan will inform you that it has found the virus and will ask you if you want it removed. You click that you want it removed and your computer will return to normal.
It is good to clear temporary Internet files and clear cookies at times as well as do a regular virus scan to keep away files on the computer and browser that could be sending outgoing messages while someone is on the Internet. Do not have two firewalls on a computer or neither one will work. Do not have two anti-virus, anti-malicious software programs running on your computer at the same time. Delete unneeded programs and files on your computer to free up computer memory. The more programs and files that are on your computer the more locations the virus scan has to scan and the more places there are for malicious software to hide.
Some people have too much security on their computers! This interferes with the normal operations people need to do on their computers. Go to the Internet browser and lower the security settings from high to medium allowing for third party cookies. Otherwise a website will never remember you when you come back to visit it. If you go to your computer’s control center you can not only see how much memory your computer has free but you can go to the security center to check on your computer’s security. From here you can lower the security levels to medium and allow for third party cookies, also. You can allow trusted sites and block sites.
Often people will connect their social networking profile to other websites for certain reasons. They will get a message asking to access information from their social networking website. Remember that your security and the security of others are dependent on the decisions that you make. I hope that this knowledge takes away some of the fear and makes it easier to enjoy the Internet by showing how it takes knowing when to trust and when not to trust.