How To Have Safe Online Searches
It's happened to just about everyone: look something up, and for the rest of the day, advertisements everywhere seem to be catered to whatever it is that's been searched for. It's at the top of Google searches; it's on the side of miscellaneous websites. This is called targeted advertisement, and currently, there isn't a singular federal law that regulates the whole world of online consumer data privacy.
There are state regulations, of course, but only three states can boast comprehensive data privacy laws: California, Virginia, and Colorado. For those outside of these jurisdictions, only specific information in specific circumstances is protected. Take HIPPA, for example, which doesn't cover every single health-related piece of information as some might assume. Instead, only communication between "you and "covered entities," which include doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, insurers, and other similar businesses" is included; COVID-19 vaccination status and any information collected via Fitbit, however, are not.
Why is this an issue? If you use the internet responsibly, then you'd have more control over how much of your data is out there, right? Unfortunately, this is a very common misconception. Data, first of all, isn't simply limited to what's posted on social media or listed in an Amazon order history; there are "a vast network of entities that are collecting, analyzing and monitoring data about what you're doing that you have no knowledge of." And second of all, there's an important psychological factor at play because what we see on the internet does tend to affect the way we think, behave, and react. No matter how much we try to curate our own online experiences, the speed and extent to which our data is disseminated (willingly or not) actually takes much of the control out of our hands.
Fortunately, mitigation isn't entirely impossible. We might not be able to completely control and keep our data from being collected, sold, and used, but we can take some extra precautions to ensure we retain as much sovereignty over our information as possible.
1. Adjust your privacy settings. Browsers have options to enable a "do not track" setting. On Google Chrome, for example, this can be found by going to Settings, then Privacy and security, and clicking the Privacy Guide. It ought to be noted, however, that this merely has your browser tell the websites that you visit that you don't want to be tracked. Whether or not those websites comply will depend entirely on their own privacy statements.
2. Adjust your cookie settings. Cookies are small data packets that save your internet activity, and can often be used to track you. Some cookies save your username and password information so you don't have to enter it every time you access the website, however, so adjust your settings accordingly.
3. A VPN, or a Virtual Private Network, is also an option for those who wish to invest in one. These VPN services establish a secure internet connection that hides your IP address and encrypts your web traffic so that no one can access and track your online activity.
4. For those unwilling to go through the hassle of managing cookies and/or a VPN, using Incognito mode on the browser will work just as well. Using such private windows automatically deletes cookies upon exiting out of the window.
For many people, these steps might be helpful, but feel deeply unsatisfactory. For something that's as important and personal to us as our data, why isn't there any federal regulation protecting our information online? It's definitely a valid concern and is one of the leading issues behind the introduction of the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act of 2022, which seeks to "[prohibit] (1) online advertisers from using personal information, including personal information that identifies an individual as a member of a specified protected class, to target advertising, and (2) advertising facilitators...from using personal information to disseminate targeted advertising or knowingly enabling online advertisers to do so." Though this bill is still in the introductory phase, it's one of the most recent efforts to try and protect online consumers' data on a federal level.
Only time will tell if this bill will find the proper footing it deserves, but until then, it's always important to stay informed and aware of who has access to your data and what they're using it for.
 Thorin Klosowski, The State of Consumer Data Privacy Laws in the US (And Why It Matters), NY Times (Sept. 6, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/blog/state-of-privacy-laws-in-us/.
 Jennifer Horton, Companies are tracking your personal data without your consent, what you need to know (Oct. 5, 2021), https://www.wbrc.com/2021/10/06/companies-are-tracking-your-personal-data-without-your-consent-what-you-need-know/.
 Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, H.R. 6416, 117th Cong. (2021-2022).