Powerful privacy tools you can use to curtail how big tech companies - and sometimes the federal government - track your every step on the Internet have been available for years.
Thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden these privacy tools have emerged from the fringes of the Internet into the limelight.
Snowden disclosed how Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and AOL turn over consumer tracking data to the U.S. National Security Agency, under a program known as PRISM. That opened people's eyes, says Sarah Downey, privacy analyst at Abine, maker of DoNotTrackMe, a free browser add-on designed to foil tracking.
"It's not just the government," Downey says. "It's the private companies people use every day, like Google, Facebook and Apple. They collect the data that the government gets."
Before PRISM, U.S. consumers were lulled into complacency regarding online privacy, says Jeff Bermant, CEO of Virtual World Computing, maker of Cocoon, another free browser add-on that disrupts online tracking.
"Most people just think that giving up their privacy is the cost of using the Internet," Bermant says. "They don't know that there are ways they can protect their data while online."
Both Cocoon and DoNotTrackMe are free browser add-ons that enable you to isolate and deflect the tracking cookies tech companies and advertisers place in your browser. The cookies are identifiers that enable the tech giants to harvest rich data about where you go, what you're interested in and who you associate with online. GPS data from your smartphone and touch tablets are being increasingly added to this mix.
This tracking information gets correlated to the personal information and preferences you disclose at websites for shopping, travel, health, jobs and, of course, on Facebook and other social networks. Employers, insurance companies and attorneys can use this information. And Snowden revealed that the government's top spy agency has been regularly tapping in.
"Companies have our data and the government gets it all from them, that's the message that seems to stick with people," says Jules Polonetsky director of the Future of Privacy Forum.
Before Snowden became an international cause cèlébre, DoNotTrackMe usage typically increased about 3% week to week. That growth rate soared for three days following Snowden's initial disclosures, says Downey. Cocoon saw a similar rise in downloads and installs during the same period, says Bermant.
So did a couple of other free privacy tools worth checking out: AVG's Privacyfix and AnchorFree's Hotspot Shield.
Privacyfix evaluates the privacy settings you set in your browser and on Facebook and other social networks, letting you know in plain terms what you're sharing and how to stop - if you so choose. "Once folks know they can make simple adjustments that vastly curtail what they share, they're less fearful when they hear news of breaches," says Jim Brock, AVG's vice president of privacy products.
Hotspot Shield is a free virtual private networking tool for consumers. It keeps all of your online activity private by establishing a secure tunnel between your computing device and the Internet. Your information remains inside this tunnel, which also protects your computer or mobile device from malware and phishing scams.