It's a bit spooky. One minute you're on the WestJet website looking for airfares, the next you're in your Gmail — and what should appear in the sponsored ad window but a few links to discount airfare agencies offering sales to the same destinations you were searching for earlier.
While it's no secret that Google, Facebook and other websites are tracking you — ostensibly to help you through personalized web access — they are also looking to further their own business model by dangling links in front of you that they get paid for, as well as collect information on you that they can sell to marketing companies.
While many services and software available over the web are free as advertised, there's always a reason for that. Google has over a million servers in action, more than Microsoft, eBay, Amazon and Yahoo combined, and it costs a large amount of money just to keep the power on — to say nothing of the wages associated with maintaining the software and code for their wide range of products, from the Google search engine to the Chrome browser to the Android operating system. Just because you can't see their business model doesn't mean they don't have one, or that the company isn't insanely profitable despite offering all kinds of free services.
But some people are uncomfortable with the idea that they could be tracked, and sometimes there are search terms you want to keep secret. For example, if you're buying a gift for a loved one and you share a computer, the last thing you want is a bunch of ads popping up for the exact thing you're shopping for. Maybe you're at work and looking for another job, and don't want someone you share a computer with to know you're spending time on job search sites. Maybe you're concerned about security, and how much of your personal information is out there that could be hacked and used to steal your identity or scam someone.
There are a few things you can do to make your web searching more private. The most extreme measure is to create a Virtual Private Network that masks your IP address and other data. There are a lot of tutorials online how to set up a VPN for your operating system and needs, but you should know that it does take a certain amount of computer savvy to pull it off and sometimes there's a fee required to join a network.
The other option is to use another search engine. Both DuckDuckGo (www.duckduckgo.com) and Ixquick (www.ixquick.com) are gaining popularity because they don't store any user data. One of the reasons is that if they don't collect that information then they can't be called on to provide it to police or other authorities under subpoena — a growing issue in the U.S., Canada and other jurisdictions where the rules of search and seizure have been relaxed since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Some people won't care what data is out there, but just think about what that data could tell someone else about you if it wound up in the wrong hands — personal interests, banking institutions, political activities, medical and psychological conditions, holiday and travel plans, sexual preferences and activities, career aspirations — information that could be damaging in the wrong hands, or wrong context. And if you share your computer with others then the data is also hands-down inaccurate.
Something to think about the next time you Google something...
Get the most out of your cloud
I currently have DropBox, Google Drive and Microsoft Skydrive. I may get Box — not for the 5GB of storage necessarily, but for the ability to send people links to files.
Having all that information out there in so many places can get confusing. A few weeks ago I wrote a column on how you should divide your data between these cloud services to get the most bang for your buck — or pony up and pay for a service so you have enough capacity to put everything in one convenient location.
There are a few other alternatives to paying or becoming more organized — programs that can show you the contents of all your cloud services in one window. One of these programs is Otixo (www.otixo.com), a web-based program that organizes all of your online files, as well as searches them and shares them. Otixo works within your browser so you'll need to be online to access your files.
You can get up to 250MB of free bandwith usage per month, or pay $9.99 a month for unlimited bandwith use.
The other service worth mentioning is Primadesk (www.primadesk.com), which allows you to back up all of your cloud data to your computer as well as access files through the web. There's also an app for iPhone and Android, which gives Primadesk a bit of an edge for power users.
It's free, but if you pay for the Pro version it's $5 a month or $50 a year, which includes 10GB of storage space, a single sign on for all your cloud services, a unified email client and the ability to sign onto an unlimited number of services.