Adjust technical settings to protect privacy


So much of our sensitive personal data is tracked and sold that trying to protect our privacy can seem like a pointless exercise.

We can turn off location tracking on phone apps only to find new apps tracking us the next time we check. We may opt out of personalized advertising and be bombarded by marketers who ignore our wishes. We can be fooled by language designed to protect companies’ access to data rather than our privacy.

All this surveillance allows advertisers to manipulate us into spending more. People who are struggling financially can be targeted by predatory lenders and other seedy companies. In the event of a database breach, criminals can buy our information for just a few dollars and use it to impersonate us or target us for various scams.

As individuals, we have a limited ability to stop prying eyes. Meaningful action usually needs to come from regulators and legislators. But we can take a few steps to reclaim small but important pieces of privacy and send a signal to companies that we don’t like what they’re doing.

“It’s a way of letting a company know that you don’t agree with what they’re doing,” says freelance journalist Bob Sullivan, consumer privacy advocate and author of “Gotcha Capitalism.”

Limit Tracking

You may think that how often you visit a liquor store, hit the gym, or attend a church service is up to you. But many companies are dedicated to collecting and using this data for marketing and other purposes. You can throw a wrench into this relentless location tracking by changing a few settings on your devices.

On iPhones and iPads, go to “Settings”, then “Privacy” to find “Location Services”. With Android devices, go to “Settings”, then “Location” to find “App location permissions”. Don’t be afraid to “break” an app by reducing or eliminating its ability to track you, says Thomas Germain, technology and privacy editor at Consumer Reports. If you want to do something with the app that requires your location, the app will let you easily turn it back on, Germain says.

Regularly check these settings on all your devices and remove any apps you don’t use. The fewer apps you have, the fewer opportunities companies have to suck up and sell your data, notes Sullivan.

Stop Data

If you use a Google application or service, your location history may be stored and used even after you turn off tracking. Your searches and other activity are also stored, so consider turning off Google’s ability to retain this data, Germain says.

To do this, open in a browser, log in to your account and click on your icon in the upper right corner. Select “Manage your Google Account”, then “Privacy and personalization”. Under ‘Your data and privacy options’, choose ‘Things you’ve done and places you’ve been’. You’ll see options to review what information Google stores about you, as well as ways to turn off data storage and delete stored histories.

Some of Google’s apps might not work as well without that data, but you can always turn those features back on, Germain says.

“I think it’s something people should experiment with to turn off and see if the trade-offs are worth it,” he says.

Another setting on this page that you can turn off is Ads Personalization. Google tries to make tailored advertising look like something you should want or need; it probably isn’t.

Your devices have similar options. With iPhones and iPads, turn off “Allow apps to request tracking” in the “Tracking” section of the privacy settings. With Android devices, click “remove advertising ID” under “Ads” in the “Advanced” section of privacy settings. Stopping ad personalization won’t entirely stop advertisers from tracking you, but it should reduce the number of companies that have your data, Germain says.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, a feature in the iOS 15 operating software update called “App Privacy Report” can show how you’re being profiled and tracked, suggests Emory Roane, policy adviser at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“Turn it on, let it run for a week or two, and then it’ll give you a very detailed list of apps that do what,” Roane says. “This is a great resource for iOS users.”

More steps

An easy way to reduce data mining is to switch to browsers designed with privacy in mind, such as Firefox or Brave, suggests Germain.

Also, try to slow down. Many sites and apps ask you to make privacy decisions on the fly, making it easy to click the wrong places in your rush to get rid of the pop-up screen.

“All it takes is one incorrect answer, and suddenly you’ve given all these permissions,” Sullivan says.

Finally, if you care about privacy, let your legislators know. Consumers are “woefully ill-equipped” to combat all the ways our data is mined and used, says Roane.

“The real ‘little advice’ is that you need to call your rep and tell them to support stronger privacy laws,” he says.


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