Taking back our privacy!

Published by UCLan Centre for Collaborative Learning on

Author: Matt Sessions – Lecturer in Digital Policing, University of Central Lancashire 

I should probably start with giving a little context as to who I am and what I do, I teach Digital Policing in the School of Justice and my background is computing, with a specialism in computer hacking. In essence, I am a computer geek through and through!   

So, imagine… you’re walking down your local high street partaking in a spot of window shopping. You can’t decide whether to treat yourself to a brand-new mobile phone or not. Sure, the one in your pocket will last another year or so, but who doesn’t love something new and shiny! You nip in and out of phone shops all day, taking a look at the latest deals and the best offers. Perhaps you pop into the local second-hand shop and see what they will offer you to trade in your current handset. 5pm comes and the shops start to close, so you head back to your car and decide to call it a day. As you open your door, you hear a voice from behind you… 

“Excuse me… I have been following you around for the last seven hours and I can’t help but notice that you have been looking at mobile phones, I have a few in my briefcase that you may be interested in. Also, I noticed you grab a coffee earlier, did you know that if you sign up for this membership you can get a free scone next time? Oh, and by the way, I saw you pop to the loo six times… Is everything ok? Can I interest you in some tablets that may help settle your stomach? And I hope you don’t mind, but, I have sold all of this information to some other sales people, they will be popping around to yours later with some offers of their own”. 

Weird right? Inappropriate? An invasion of your privacy? Borderline stalking? We wouldn’t stand for it in the real world. Yet, when we are online this is exactly what is happening to us. Every website that we visit is monitoring our behaviour online. They put tiny files on our devices (tracking cookies/trackers) that follow us around the internet, monitor what we are looking at and use that information to inundate us with targeted adverts. Often, they sell this information to other companies!   

The advent of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now means that websites have to ask permission to track, but how many of us blindly click accept? Even when we decline the website can still put cookies/trackers on our devices that it deems to be ‘necessary’.  When writing this blog post, I did a little research on the GDPR website, upon opening the webpage, it asked if I wanted to accept cookies. Had I blindly clicked accept they would have put 113 cookies/trackers on my PC. I instead clicked decline, and they very kindly agreed to only put 33 on. The big softies!   

So, what can we do? How do we fight back? We can’t just give up on the internet as it is a vital component in so many of our jobs, as well as our personal lives. Thankfully, some web browsers and search engines are starting to fight back!   

Brave is a web browser that has been designed with privacy in mind. By default, it will block a lot of adverts (including those pesky clips at the start of YouTube videos). Brave also prevents websites from adding cookies/trackers onto our machines. It can also automate the process of copying over our bookmarks from other web browsers to make the transition as smooth as possible.   

We can also consider using alternatives to Google such as DuckDuckGo or QWANT. Unlike Google, these search engines do not log everything we search and use it to target us with advertisements, nor do they sell our data to the highest bidder.  

Two easy steps that can make our web browsing experience a lot less invasive and help us start to take control over our own data.   

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay


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