It is one of the web’s often-mentioned and even somewhat-creepy moments – a user is served with a banner ad promoting products on a website they visited days, or even months in the past. It is as if the ads are stalking them from site to site. Most people know that issue of “ad stalking” or “re-targeting”, as marketers refer to it – has something to do with cookies; however, that is barely the half of it. The underlying tracking for all of this is provided by Google, Microsoft or Yahoo (depending on what search engine you use), or even one of a number of programmatic ad platforms most users have never heard of. The system notices that sites users are visiting, choosing the right moment to “re-market” services or products from a website they visited at some point in the past, based on how receptive it thinks the users will be. Of course – the promoted website has paid for this privilege.
Free Services Come at a Cost
So is this creepy… well, only if you don’t fully grasp what is really going on when you are using the Internet. As far as marketers are concerned, if a person has a negative feeling towards the ad, then the re-marketing has not worked. Now, privacy would be challenging enough if marketers and advertisers were the only ones snooping through your personal information and installing software and cookies on your device without your knowledge. However, every free service (including social media sites, search engines, cloud storage, and many more) uses this business model. To put simply – user data is too valuable not to be taken advantage of. Those free services you use are free because the user has become the product, whose behavior patterns and habits can be sold to the third parties. Meanwhile, broadband providers are increasingly required by the government to save the Internet usage history and data logs of users for reasons justified by national security.
While this type of marketing is seemingly harmless, this personal tracking can also cost you money through a marketing technique named “dynamic pricing”. With this technique, websites mysteriously offer two different users a different bill or identical products or services. While we don’t exactly know how this is done, everything from the browser used, the search engine, the buying history of the person or the profile of data suggesting his or her affluence may come into play. Surprisingly, even the number of searches may potentially raise the price. Seemingly, this is most common when users are buying commodity services such as car rental, hotel booking and flights, all of which are sold through a network of intermediary providers who get to decide the rules without having to tell anyone what these are. In this context, privacy becomes about being treated fairly, something Internet providers don’t always seem keen to do.
Using VPNs to Stay Anonymous
The only way to ensure advertisers, marketers, and general outsiders don’t gather information about you while you are browsing the Internet is to appear to be somewhere else, in a completely different location. Thankfully, VPN services are everywhere these days, and they have not only the advantage of securing the traffic between your PC and servers, but also masking your IP address and location. Furthermore, you don’t even have to spend a lot of money on them; because even the cheapest VPN services out there have enough features to provide you with complete security. Virtual Private Networks also double as a way to get access to Geo-blocked content – if you are in a country that cannot get the BBC iPlayer, Netflix or Hulu, a good VPN could be your ticket.
Recommended VPN Providers:
This provider advertises itself as the fastest VPN on the planet, and while cannot corroborate the claim, according to the number of satisfied users, it seems ExpressVPN lives up to the hype. The setup is really simple, the interface is intuitive, and you can utilize the system over your smartphone and tablet.
PureVPN is a service provider that offers one of the most secure and one of the fastest VPN services on the market. As you can see in this PureVPN review, it does great in speed test and protects you online with its impressive 256-bit encrypted secure servers.
Mullvad is one of the rare services that actually don’t keep users’ activity logs, and does whatever it can to ensure the safety of the client’s identity. While the features are just a little above average, the service takes Bitcoin, if you want to avoid potential risks while paying for the VPN.
Avoiding Free VPNs
Let’s try to answer one of the most important question – why are some VPNs free? The answer is quite simple, they can perform the same sort of profiling of user behavior that the ISP does, but for commercial rather than legal reasons. Effectively, the user is simply swapping the spying of one company – the Internet Service Provider, for another – free Virtual Private Network.