How companies collect your private information when you browse online

It’s 12am, and you’re surfing some favorite websites. You do a little shopping, post in a forum or two, and tweet about your day. At this point, if you sense someone peering over your shoulder, it will probably be your spouse looking for a midnight snack. You definitely won’t be thinking about electronic privacy and the personal information your computer leaves as it weaves from site to site.

Without filling in a single form, your struggle to pick between two laptops on one website is traced straight through to the final site where you purchase something else entirely. It’s easy to think of yourself as a small speck of sand in an invisible web of servers, but in order to protect your online reputation it’s important to know what traces your computer leaves on each website you visit.

This article will tell you how companies collect your private information, and how you can protect your digital privacy by explaining what sort of information websites obtain about their users, how they obtain it and ultimately what they do with that data.

Protect your Internet privacy while surfing the Web.

Most Internet users feel a certain anonymity as they browse online, yet websites can collect an extensive personal profile on you within mere seconds of your clicking on a site. Information such as your location, specific address, name, email address and even phone number is obtainable.

In addition, website owners can discover your specific shopping habits, what keywords you used to find their site and whether or not you were interested in advertisements on their pages. Web 2.0 programming allows site owners to acquire most of this information through IP addresses, Web browser cookies and tiny image files called Web beacons or Web bugs.

Monitor the information your computer sends out.

When a user clicks on a website, a “session” begins. A session tracks you from the first page you click on until you exit the site. Your session can be monitored in several ways. Your IP address, the binary digits assigned to your computer by your Internet provider, can provide website owners with your approximate location, including city, suburb and state, as well as your computer hardware and what type of operating system you run.

Although IP addresses can provide a fairly detailed summary of your computer, Web browser cookies provide a more complete profile of a user’s preferences. Three types of cookies are sent out when you surf the Internet.

A session cookie is a simple text file that expires once you close the website.

A persistent cookie exists as a text file as well, but it remains on your hard drive and either expires at a set time or remains until you delete it. Often used when someone logs in to a site and wants to remain logged in for a set amount of time, persistent or permanent cookies collect information about you and your Web browsing habits.

The important thing to note is that these types of cookies generally exist for only one domain.

Not all Internet cookies are created equally.

The last type of cookie is a third-party ad-serving cookie, which monitors your Web browsing to show you advertisements that relate to your interests.

The site owner places third-party ads on the site, but the actual ads are hosted by another site. If your computer accepts the third-party cookie, the company hosting the ad can access your information and compile detail-rich profiles, including your IP address, location, shopping preferences and in some cases the means and methods in which you pay online. In order to maintain your privacy, your Internet browser will allow you to decline all third-party cookies.

Although you may actively be diverting third-party cookies, they can also appear in the form of Web bugsWeb bugs are small graphics imbedded into a webpage. Web bugs are used to hide the fact that the page is being monitored. Information collected by Web bugs include IP addresses, times that the image was viewed and data from related cookies on your computer. Web bugs can track you as you move from site to site and create personal profiles of users.

You can check and see if Web bugs are planted within a page by viewing the page source. If you see images called “clear.gif” or find images linking to another site, you’ll have found Web bugs.  This is one way how companies collect your private information.

Control your personal information online and offline.

In much the same way that companies gauge the strength of their personal branding by monitoring how you watch television, the way you travel through the deep Web is analyzed and tabulated into statistical data. This data allows businesses both large and small to develop new products, discover the shopping habits of their target markets and make important marketing decisions.

On one hand, without access to this information, you would find companies struggling to properly determine the interests of their mainstream online audience. On the other hand, having your Web browsing monitored can make you feel as though your personal privacy is being invaded.  However you feel, there are distinct ways how companies collect your private information when you browse online, and it is important to know exactly how that works.