The Wall Street Journal

Why You Can't Win at Privacy Whac-A-Mole


Despite new initiatives from Google and Facebook, messing with privacy controls is like playing a carnival game. Knock out one way for advertisers to track you, and they quickly find another way to do it. WSJ's Joanna Stern heads to Coney Island to explain. Photo: Kenny Wassus

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… show captions ↓
(dynamic brass music)
- You cannot have my info!
You cannot have my purchase information!
Don't send my Facebook information!
- Whack those personal data sucking moles!
Kill those web trackers, those hungry social media networks!
- What?
You've never heard of this good old fashioned game before?
I call it Whac-A-Tracker, and it's just a blast.
Tech companies and advertisers pop up
and grab your personal info:
what you do on your devices, where you go,
heck, what pills you might take.
You hit back and turn on privacy settings,
thinking you've stopped them, but nope.
They pop up again with new ways to get your info.
It's nice that, in the last few weeks,
Google and Facebook have talked about new privacy goals
at their developers conferences.
- This is the next chapter.
- But they still put too much work on us,
and there are too many loopholes.
Look, we're probably never gonna win at this game,
at least without some better privacy laws,
default privacy protection, and some more transparency,
but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep on whacking.
(alarm ringing)
Think of each of these machines as a company
wanting to get your information for advertising.
You've got Facebook over here, Google over here,
and lots of other apps and companies
that suck up your information for advertising.
Then think of each of these moles
as the different ways they pop up and grab your data.
This little guy here is in charge
of watching everything you do on the web.
This cute one here, he looks out
for your phone's unique ad identifier.
It's like your own personal flag that you unknowingly wave
to the companies that want to sell you stuff.
This mole, he hides in your downloaded apps.
This little one, he stalks you ever move in the real world
via GPS and other location data.
(playful music)
So you get out your privacy settings mallet
to try and whack those moles forever.
You jump from app to app, menu to menu,
and switch on protections.
But how do they keep popping back up?
Well, take these examples.
You can turn off location tracking,
but then companies figure out another way
to track your location, say with your IP address.
Or you turn off cookie tracking,
but they use fingerprinting,
a technique where they put together other info
from your device, like what wifi or cellular networks
your on, or time zones, to figure out who you are.
Using a special software proxy tool,
my colleague Mark Secada and I tested 80 apps,
many of which Apple promotes as Apps We Love.
In all but one of them, we found mobile ad trackers
sending data without any indication to the user.
One of our findings: meditation apps
are sucking up a lot of data, averaging six tackers each.
How zen.
Yes, it's a lot of moles,
but at least I can help you whack some of them.
Do this right now.
You can limit web cookie tracking to a degree.
The best thing you can do is use
a privacy-focused browser like Firefox or Safari.
If you use Chrome, download the EFF's
Privacy Badger extension, which shows you what trackers
are being used and lets you block them.
With both Google and Facebook,
go through their privacy checkup tools.
On Facebook specifically,
turn off everything under ad settings.
On Google, turn of the location history tool,
which logs everywhere you've been.
The best thing you can do is limit tracking
at the operating system level.
On the iPhone, go to settings, privacy, advertising,
and toggle on Limit Ad Tracking.
Make sure you've turned off location tracking
on the apps that really don't need your location.
On Android and iOS, go into settings
and find that location setting
and disable access for the apps
that really don't need the info.
Okay, sure, I've made this all out
to seem like a game, but at the end of the day,
our dwindling privacy is anything but that.
Despite new promises about privacy
and giving us new controls, the tech companies
have continued to put too much of the privacy onus on us.
And like a game of Whac-A-Mole, I mean Whac-A-Tracker,
it feels like it may never end.
- All right, we have a winner!
You win a tracker!
- Thank you. - Hey, remember,
they're always watching you.
Have a great day!
Thank you for playing!
(upbeat jazz music)

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