So much of our sensitive personal data is being tracked and sold that trying to protect our privacy can seem like a pointless exercise.
We can disable the location tracking on phone apps only to find new apps stalking us the next time we check. We can turn off personalized advertising and still get bombarded by marketers that ignore our wishes. We can be fooled by language that’s 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. If there’s a database breach, criminals can buy our information for just a few dollars and use it to impersonate or target us for various scams.
As individuals, we have limited ability to stop the prying. Meaningful action typically must come from regulators and lawmakers. But we can take a few steps to reclaim small but significant chunks of privacy and send a signal to companies that we don’t like what they’re up to.
“It’s a way of making a statement to a company that you’re not going along with what they’re doing,” says independent journalist Bob Sullivan, a consumer privacy advocate and author of “Gotcha Capitalism.”
Set limits on location tracking
You may think it’s your own business how often you visit a liquor store, go to the gym or attend a religious service. But many companies are in the business of gleaning and using such 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 worry that you’ll “break” an app by reducing or eliminating its ability to track you, says Thomas Germain, a technology and privacy writer at Consumer Reports. If you want to do something with the app that requires your location, the app will make it easy to turn that back on, Germain says.
Regularly check these settings on all your devices, and delete any app you’re not using. The fewer apps you have, the fewer opportunities companies have to suck up and sell your data, Sullivan notes.
Check out: Unpacking the mystery of credit scores
Shut down other data collecting
If you use any Google
app or service, your location history could be stored and used even after you’ve shut off tracking. Your searches and other activity are being stored as well, so consider shutting off Google’s ability to keep that data, Germain says.
To do that, open Google.com in a browser, log into your account and click on your icon in the upper right corner. Select “Manage your Google account,” then “Privacy & personalization.” Under “Your data & privacy options,” choose “Things you’ve done and places you’ve been.” You’ll see options to review the information Google is storing about you, as well as ways to turn off data storage and delete stored histories.
Some of Google’s apps may not work as well without this data, but you can always turn these functions back on, Germain says.
“I think it’s something that people should experiment with turning off and seeing if the trade-offs are worth it,” he says.
Another setting on this page you can toggle off: ad personalization. Google tries to make tailor-made advertising sound like something you should want or need; it’s probably not.
Your devices have similar options. With Apple
iPhones and iPads, switch off “allow apps to request to track” in the “Tracking” portion of privacy settings. With Android devices, click “delete advertising ID” under “Ads”in the “Advanced” portion of privacy settings. Shutting down ad personalization won’t entirely prevent advertisers from stalking you, but it should cut down on 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 the “App Privacy Report” can show how you’re being profiled and tracked, suggests Emory Roane, policy counsel at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
“Turn that on, leave it running for a week or two, and then it’ll tell you a very detailed list of which apps are doing what,” Roane says. “It’s a great, great resource for iOS users.”
More steps to take
An easy way to cut down on data mining is to switch to browsers built with privacy in mind, such as Firefox or Brave, Germain suggests.
Also, try to slow down. Many sites and apps ask you to make privacy decisions on the fly, making it easy to click on the wrong spot in your rush to get rid of the pop-up screen.
“All it takes is that one incorrect answer, and suddenly, you’ve given all these permissions,” Sullivan says.
Check whether you have other options, such as the Online Privacy Protection service Discover is rolling out for debit and credit card holders.
Finally, if you care about privacy, let your lawmakers know. Consumers are “woefully ill equipped” to fight all the ways our data is being mined and used, Roane says.
“The real ‘quick tip’ is that you need to call your representative and tell them to support stronger privacy laws,” he says.
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Liz Weston, CFP® writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.