Why privacy should be your number one online concern

How we use the Internet and the information shared, knowingly or otherwise, has become a seemingly endless issue of debate. Data scandals are aplenty and, with constant legislative overhaul underway across the world, the issue of online privacy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

We spoke with Jeremy Tillman, director of product at advertising and tracker-blocking guru Ghostery, about how the average internet user can protect themselves in chaotic times. If you’ve also noticed your browser isn’t as fast as it used to be while you’re bombarded with the umpteenth headline about fake news, you should know they’re are all connected. 

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  • What do you do differently than a standard ad-blocker, and why should the average internet user concern themselves with seeking out this type of browser extension?

Ghostery is an all-in-one privacy adblocker that gives users the cleanest, fastest, safest browsing experience on the internet. Our tool uses blocklist technology and AI-powered antitracking protection alongside our built-in ad blocker to stop trackers, block ads and protect user privacy.  

Unlike Ghostery, most standard ad-blockers only block ads. They do this by blocking requests that websites make that might be downloading an ad. To do this, ad-blockers use lists of rules, also known as filter lists, that are used to determine if a request might be loading an ad. This is how most ad blockers work and, in fact, this is how Ghostery’s Enhanced Ad Blocker works as well.  

However, Ghostery takes several steps beyond this simple approach to not only block ads, but to also block third-party trackers, which includes site analytics, marketing tools, audio/video players and any other technologies that load content and collect user data. Ghostery does this with our Enhanced Antitracking and Smart Blocking features, which uses AI to intelligently block trackers a remove any personal data they might be transmitting and to optimize page performance and guarantee privacy. Coupled with our built-in adblocker, these technologies make Ghostery the most comprehensive privacy and adblocking tool out there.  

  • What information is being tracked on websites and why is it useful to those collecting it? How does it compare to what social media networks like Facebook do? 

The trackers on websites carefully record every move of the online consumer and collect a variety of personal information, which can be used to draw conclusions about an individual’s shopping habits, financial situation, political and religious beliefs. They can also collect extremely private health information, like your sexual orientation and if you have taken an HIV test.

Facebook tracks users through its own network of trackers and cookies. Trackers are snippets of code on a website that transmit data back and forth to a company’s server, whereas cookies are small files stored on a website that hold user information -- for example, when a retailer remembers what’s in your shopping cart. Facebook uses cookies to store key account information on your browser, such as your unique member ID. When you visit a website that has one of Facebook’s technologies, such as a “like” button or its ad tracker, it can use the cookie stored on your browser to read your unique member ID and thus determine that you visited that website. These trackers are then able to communicate your behavior on that website back to its servers, including what links you clicked on or what products you bought.  They add this information to a profile they have on you that not only includes intimate information you shared on Facebook, such as your age or sexual orientation, but that also includes vast troves of your browsing behavior. Facebook then allows third-parties to indirectly use these profiles on its platform to target you on Facebook and across the web with very specific ads based on your behaviors and preferences. 

  • If I haven’t protected myself until now, what can I do about information that’s already been collected or shared?

Once your information is out there, there is not much you can do to get it back. Facebook and Google, are notoriously known for having the most tracking scripts on websites, and anyone can download their user profile that outlines all the information each of the companies has on them. However, users should feel compelled to proactively fight back against trackers and use privacy tools and ad blockers as weapons of resistance. These tools help reduce clutter and can also double website speeds

  • What happened to the “good old days” of the internet when we didn’t have to worry about our browsing’s background activities? What brought us to this point?

Online advertising has been part of the internet ecosystem for years, but only recently has it been taken to the stalker-like level of sophistication we experience today. Ad-tracking technology has become incredibly precise, monitoring every single move the online consumer makes. Advertisers know that there is a monstrous amount of money to be made when targeting consumers with tailored ads, so they harness all their power to fine-tune tracking efforts and turn this data into an extensive profile of the online user, which is then used, and potentially sold, to additional advertisers and retailers.  

  • How does a cleaner and more private browsing experience relate to fake news?

Today’s ad-supported internet provides both the incentives and the tools for fake news to flourish. When clicks and impressions are the path to monetization, inevitably you’ll invite bad actors who realize they can lie their way to a fortune by pumping out salacious fake news stories with eye-grabbing headlines that are designed to not just reinforce but enflame people’s pre-existing biases. Because programmatic advertising and its trackers is a plug-and-play ecosystem with zero oversight and accountability, it’s incredibly easy for fake news to flourish and proliferate. With anti-tracking and ad-blocking, user clicks and browsing behavior are kept private, providing the user a cleaner browsing experience.

  • Is there a way for websites to profit from advertising without slowing down browsing speed and collecting personal information?

The question isn’t whether websites can profit from advertising but whether they can profit from creating great content that their audience values. The truth is that today’s ad-supported model creates a set of perverse incentives that inevitably undermine the users’ privacy and browsers experience. For starters, websites often earn revenue from ads on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) or cost-per-click (CPC) model, meaning that they’re paid a certain amount of money for every ad impression or ad click they get. To maximize revenue with this approach, websites often stuff as many ads they can into a page and try to have you generate as many page loads as possible. This is why many websites spread their articles over 2 or 3 pages and why they fill every available white space with an ad-spot. To command the highest CPM or CPC rate possible, websites then auction these spaces off to the highest bidder, which requires a huge network of ad-technology companies that place real-time bids in fractions of a second on every page load to win the right to serve their ad. These bids each take only a fraction of a second, but, with dozens or hundreds of companies making multiple bids, these fractions ad up.  When a company finally wins the bid and gets the ad space, they want their ad to be as effective as possible, so they will use any and all user data to target the ad as precisely as possible to the individual sitting in front of the computer screen. 

That approach maximizes ad-revenue, but it also produces a terribly slow, terribly un-private user experience. How do you fix that?

This is online advertisings fatal flaw, and embracing it is the original sin of the Internet. To truly profit without slowing down browsing speed or collecting personal information, websites need a new model that allows users to directly compensate them in exchange for quality content.  There are many models out there that are looking to do just this, including micropayment system and internet-wide ad-free subscriptions.  While none of these have become a dominant model yet, there are trends that suggest that there will be viable revenue-generation ad-alternative models in 5-10 years, and the Internet will be all the better for it.       

  • If you could describe an ideal future for the internet, what would it look like and how would we achieve it?

The ideal future of the Internet is one where individuals compensate companies in clear transactions where value is knowingly exchanged for value. In today’s Internet, individuals pay a huge unseen cost in data and speed for the so-called “free web” and companies are incentivized to monopolize as much of our attention as humanly possible, often through questionable tactics such that are designed to make their products irresistible and addictive.

My ideal future is one where the common currency of the web isn’t attention or impressions but engagement and enrichment. We get there by abandoning advertising as the de facto engine driving the digital economy and supplement it (and perhaps ultimately replace it) with other models that allow companies to make as much money, if not more, by creating content or building products that have real value or utility. This is a future where users knowingly pay a price for an experience that fully justifies it.

Jeremy Tillman is the director of product & business operations at Ghostery

Jeremy Tillman

Jeremy Tillman is the President, Head of Product & Marketing at Ghostery, Inc.