Have you ever taken a survey? If you have, you’ve no doubt felt that pang of self-conscious reflection when you are asked to reveal your age, income, education, weight, or religious background. Once I get to that point I always think to myself, “Who are you again and why is it that you want to know this about me?” Next I think to myself, how do I know this is really anonymous? I quickly review mentally whether or not I supplied any identifying information like my drivers license, or a bank check, or my credit card, or even my telephone number. We all want to support the science of public policy or helping a company make better products but there is a line and I don’t care why it is you want to know I’m not going to reveal certain things. If you cross that line, I’ll give a false answer without even pausing to think about it.
Treat the Internet the same way. If I don’t already have a relationship with a website then I will switch over to my AMENDMENT 1 WiFi connection before I even visit that site. First and foremost, I don’t reveal my home address on the Internet unless I know the destination is trustworthy. It's a judgement call in each instance but pausing to swap WiFi networks takes seconds and I know it protects my privacy. Not only does it protect me from potentially unsavory destinations but it also prevents anyone between me and my destination from knowing where I’m going and what I’m interested in, watching, or reading. With this approach, I can take my time and evaluate the value of a destination before surrendering any valuable information. Not long ago few of us would have dreamed the U.S. Department of Justice would issue a subpoena for the IP Addresses of all visitors to a political protest website. As recent events have shown, for some destinations, "valuable information" is as simple as your IP Address and what content you visited.
Let’s use a specific example. Why not take 5 minutes and see what your own profile looks like? Acxiom is one of the premier (but not the only) vendors of consumer Profile Data. To quench public concerns, they have established a program to allow you to see some of what they know about you. Just follow this link, register, and log in. (Wait - don't use your own email! Get NADA) In a few minutes you’ll be able to get a glimpse of the sort of information that is being traded about you right now. If you are (understandably) nervous about the information you have to give to see your profile, here is someone else's experience.
Outside of your IP Address, the only source of information about you is… well, you! What happens over time is that your IP Address is recorded as a series of location points. That information is combined with your login information - usually your email and first and last name and a password. Then your interests are accumulated based on what videos you watch, pages you access (items you <heart> or <like>), and anything else you volunteer - like your birthday or your phone number (“for security purposes”, as if that keeps sites from getting hacked). Then all of that information is packaged, repurposed, and sold to the highest bidder and maybe even combined with what you saw above from Acxiom. Now that you’ve seen a glimpse of what one profiling source looks like, take a look at how various sources link together when using the Internet. This is just a snapshot (Nov 2017 - Feb 2018) from one of the test laptops sitting around my workspace using the Mozilla Lightbeam plugin: 1,228 Third Party sites and linkages.
Protecting your privacy online is relatively simple: stop introducing yourself to every stranger you meet. When you are browsing the Internet, shopping for new goods and services, or participating in political dialogue use the AMENDMENT 1 - just take 10 seconds and swap to the “AMENDMENT1” WiFi network in your home, office, or school. Then, when you find something interesting, use a tool like GetNada to supply contact information that can’t be traced back to your online identity. Then browse and review and comment to your heart’s content knowing you are anonymous and your privacy is being protected, even though you are "Logged In."
In addition, consider using these tools that mitigate the “footprint” from your browser - they remove (or prevent the creation of) cookies and trackers. Don't be afraid to mix and match these tools but just remember some of these tools are themselves asking for your personal information. Any time you have to "trust" a company (ahem, Disconnect & Ghostery) there is an avenue for exposure - this is true for VPN services, ISPs, Blockers, and any company who asks for your information. Also remember: only the Tor Browser also hides your IP Address and Home Address while blocking trackers.
Mozilla Firefox Focus - for Mobile Users concerned about privacy*
Tor Browser Bundle - The first, the best for Desktop... and the slowest :(
EFF Privacy Badger - an all-inclusive tracking blocker for your desktop
Disconnect - Last but surely not least
*Android Users: Sorry, but the Google Play store has too many potential pitfalls to recommend anything else, for now.