Data Doctors: How to hide online shopping from the family

Q: How can I keep my shopping activity private when using a shared computer at home?

A technology widely used in the world of online advertising known as “retargeting” is why so much of what you search for online suddenly appears as an ad that follows you almost everywhere you go.

This is the advertising world’s attempt to make ads more targeted based on things you’ve clicked on or searched for in the recent past. It’s made possible by placing a tracking cookie — a small text file that saves user specific data — which any website that’s part of an advertising network can read.

While some would argue that it’s creepy, others point to data that suggests advertisers are able to drive sales using this process.

The big problem this presents for anyone who has a shared computer in the household is that it can tip off the kids or your spouse of the items that you’re considering as a gift. While creating separate user profiles on the machine is an option, it’s useless if you forget to logout, so here are some other options.

Private search engines

Google is by far the most powerful search engine, but it also has one of the most sophisticated advertising tracking networks online. Using Google to search for your gifts is a guaranteed way to generate retargeting ads.

Fortunately, there are a number of search engines that leverage the power of Google’s search but mask your usage. StartPage in particular offers you two levels of privacy: private search and an anonymous view option.

While a private search engine will keep your searches activity private, once you go to a website from the search results, the website itself can start tracking your behavior and save it to a cookie.

When you use the “anonymous view” option in Startpage results, your activity will appear as if it’s coming from Startpage and not your computer.

If you decide to use this approach, it may take websites a little longer to load, because they’re being redirected through Startpage’s computers.

When using any private search engine, it’s always best to use a “private browsing” session.

Private browsing

All browsers offer the ability to create special “incognito” or “private mode” sessions that won’t save anything to the browser history or allow tracking cookies to be saved.

Keep in mind, this will only remove all your activity when you close the session, so don’t forget to do so when you are finished.

In Google Chrome, you can use Control-Shift-N (Windows) or Command-Shift-N (MacOS) to open an Incognito window.

In Firefox, Control-Shift-P (Windows) or Command-Shift-P (MacOS) will open a private window.

In Apple’s Safari browser, Command-Shift-N opens a private window, while Control-Shift-P opens an “InPrivate” window in Microsoft’s Edge browser.

Alternative browsers

Another layer of privacy could come in the form of an alternative browser that’s different from the browser the rest of the family uses.

For instance, if the family typically uses Chrome, installing the Opera browser and using it exclusively for your shopping sessions in a private window (Control-Shift-N for Windows and Command-Shift-N for MacOS) to access Startpage for your searches should keep your activity private.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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