Now more than ever, the Internet is a place where many feel the need to be vigilant about protecting their personal information.  As you navigate the web, you’re often tracked and your information is captured for both benign and nefarious purposes. Both types, however, should make the average user concerned.  On the one hand, malicious thieves will often attempt to capture personal credit and identification information such as credit card numbers or social security numbers.  On a more benign level, companies such as Google and other advertising giants collect your web habits and other information to be able to sell to their clients, in order to serve you targeted advertising.  There are steps that can be taken to help guard against personal and private information being taken against your wishes.

The steps to prevent identity theft seem obvious—don’t follow links to suspicious looking websites and enter your information to them, only deal with reputable companies on the Internet, password protecting your wireless network, and make sure you clear your personal information of out browsers when using public computers.  But what’s so wrong with tracking people’s actions across the web? Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, if you’re ok with it.  Many are.  Many people see value in their actions being tracked, so that they’re offered a more personal browsing experience.  For those who are worried, however, there are options, but as Ars Technica notes, it could be a slippery slope.  Sure, being served personalized ads is no big deal.  But what would happen if governments or employers could find out what websites you’ve been visiting?  Is that a future most want?

A broad group of industry giants have come together to develop Do-Not-Track. Without any laws being passed or government intervention, market forces (namely, consumer demand) saw companies like Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and finally Google build into their browsers the Do-Not-Track features.  Do-Not-Track allows users to notify websites that it does not wish to have their actions tracked for the purposes of advertising.  However, although Do-Not-Track might be in your browser, and you’re utilizing the feature, it doesn’t mean you’re not necessarily being tracked. Because of the way the technology works, the website has to participate as well. Many of the largest websites on the Internet have willingly signed on to Do-Not-Track, and many more are sure to follow suit.

There are other ways you can protect yourself from being tracked on the Internet. Websites track where you’ve been by using something called cookies.  Cookies are stored in your browser, and alert websites you’re currently visiting of what your past visited sites have been.  Simple solution?  Regularly clear your cookies through your preferences on your chosen browser.  Most browsers allow you to removed individual cookies from your privacy pane in the preferences.

The White House, however, feels that more action needs to be taken, and that the government needs to be involved.  They’ve proposed a Privacy Bill of Rights to put into place tougher privacy laws.  But is this necessary?  As we’ve seen, most companies have already agreed to industry guidelines to protect consumers from prying eyes.  More government regulations could burden an industry that has shown tremendous growth over the past few years, one of the few industries actually creating jobs.  Another regulation restricting commerce over the web and how companies do business and make money could be detrimental to a burgeoning sector of our economy, and be hurtful to consumers who currently enjoy the fruits of it. 

Zack Christenson follows digital tech issues and writes for the American Consumer Institute.