The crumbs we leave behind: How to clean up your digital data trail

Special Reports

HUNTINGTON, WV (WOWK) — It would be hard to imagine our everyday lives without the internet—we use it to answer questions, shop, and connect with others.

However, that convenience can come at a cost.

As technology changes and evolves within the internet, so does its impact on business practices and the way our data has become a commodity.

According to cybersecurity experts, websites and big tech companies profit by tracking every move you make online. You might have thought your phone, computer and tablet are safe get-a-ways from the hectic demands and prying eyes of everyday life. Unfortunately, you’d be incorrect.

“Everywhere you go on the internet, you’re leaving behind a footprint,” says Bill Gardner, an assistant professor of Cyber Forensics and Security at Marshall University.

You might not think that being on the internet could affect your life, but Gardner says the reality is:

“The more information we put out, the more information that is being gathered by marketing people as well as people who might target us to do criminal things.” 

Bill Gardner, assistant professor, Cyber Forensics and Security, Marshall University

Our footprint is followed by things called “cookies,” which are used by websites to keep your information.

“So when you go back to that website, it knows your name. You don’t have to log in again sometimes. So it knows information about you, your browser, your location,” says Gardner.

On the surface, it seems like a way to make browsing websites more convenient—and it is—except you’re not the only one benefiting from those cookies. Matt Massie, the owner of Custom-BuiltPCs.com, explains how websites use cookies to figure out what your interests are and which advertisements with which to target you.

“You go to a site. You look at a pair of shoes. You get off that site. You go to Yahoo, and all of a sudden you got a Google ad with the pair of shoes following you everywhere you go,” Massie says.

It’s a ‘cookie-crumb’ trail you leave by browsing and searching things online, making you profitable to advertisers.

“Basically they’re tracking you across the internet by the use of these cookies, and then they’re also using that data to sell you information. You are the product at this point,” Gardner says.

Moreover, experts say the more data you put out there, the more vulnerable you are to hackers getting ahold of your personal information. When it comes to participating in the digital world, your actions are not only being tracked through the keyboard…

Cybersecurity experts say your devices, like your phone, are listening too.

“Your phone is listening to you. If you have a smart television, it can be listening to you. It could be watching you in some cases…[In] some cases these things actually have cameras in them,” Gardner says.

Gardner says by monitoring you in this way, your age, gender, income level, and even education level can be gathered.

You might be wondering: How is it legal that your cell phone or your television could be listening to or even watching you?

The answer is simple: You agreed to it.

“When you click those end-user license agreements, you give them the ability to do that,” Gardner says.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), when you click ‘Agree’ to those agreements, you give the company permission to follow you and retain that data in some cases.

“All a company needs is your consent on their website which people just click through and agree to without reading it,” says Supervisory Special Agent Steve Lampo of the Pittsburgh FBI Field Office.

“I mean, they have more information about us as consumers than the government has.” 

Steve Lampo, supervisory special agent, Pittsburgh FBI Field Office

Lampo says once they have your data, it’s unclear how long they’ll keep it or what they’ll actually do with it.

“We kind of trust that the companies that develop those and develop the software for them are only using them for what their intended purpose was;  but I think there have been a few documented instances that have come out on the news where extra things were being tracked and so that’s definitely a concern,” Lampo says.

So how do you protect your data from being collected or even worse, stolen by hackers?

“Do a virus scan. Do a malware scan. Look at your browser extensions, and empty the temporary internet files and your cookies,” Massie says.

Massie says checking your browser settings and becoming aware of all the different websites’ cookies and extensions tracking your data is the first step to securing your information and protecting your computer from hackers. The hard truth is there is no way to use the internet completely trace-free, but you can limit how much information you are sharing with the world.

Be conscientious about what you click on, what sites you have enabled cookies on, and what smart devices are activated around you.

Also, when you see an ‘opt out’ button for an app or website to track your information, take a moment to consider doing just that.

Just remember:

“There’s no guarantees that if you do opt out or turn it off that its really off,” Gardner says.

According to the FBI, companies can monitor you if you consent to it. However, there are legal limits to what they can access from you.

To hear more advice from Steve Lampo, supervisory special agent at the Pittsburgh FBI Field Office, on protecting yourself on the internet, watch the full interview below.

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