You don't need to wear a tinfoil hat to believe your internet privacy is being invaded.

The threat is real, and consumers are finally waking up to it. They've realized just how much personal information internet giants like Amazon.com (AMZN), Facebook (FB) and Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google are collecting about them — and sharing with others.

Still, there's a lot Americans don't know about data security — or the lack thereof. Many are reluctant to abandon Facebook, the dominant social media platform. The same goes for Google's leading search engine and Amazon's e-commerce powerhouse.

The problem is that people have been conditioned to give up personal data in exchange for free online services, says Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at BestVPN.com.

"People's data is literally a currency now," Walsh said.

Raghavan Mayur, president of market researcher TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, recently conducted a poll for Investor's Business Daily that asked about Facebook and the lack of privacy protections. He says people have grown used to sharing personal details about their lives on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (TWTR). Whether that information is used for commercial purposes is an afterthought.

"Consumers today have less expectation of privacy in the social media age," he said.

Steady Flow Of Scary Headlines On Internet Privacy

Yet a steady drumbeat of negative headlines has exposed data security lapses at the major internet companies. Consider these recent examples, to name a few:

  • Amazon admitted that it employs thousands of workers who listen to audio recorded in consumers' homes by its Echo smart speakers.

  • Facebook was found to have openly stored 540 million records on its users, including account names, identification numbers, comments and reactions, on Amazon cloud computing servers.

  • Facebook also stored the account passwords for hundreds of millions of its users in an unencrypted file, which was searchable by thousands of the social media giant's employees.

U.S. lawmakers of both major parties are proposing new internet privacy laws. Facebook and Google are trying to get ahead of the issue by promising changes to their businesses. For one, Google now offers an option that allows users to have personal information automatically deleted from the search engine's various services after three months. (See below for details on how to set it up.)

Also, in light of Facebook's lax privacy protections, some users are quitting the social network. The recent IBD/TIPP poll found that 13% of Facebook users had quit the service.

Consumers' Measures To Protect Internet Privacy

Instead of waiting for the federal government to get involved, experts say people should get proactive and limit how much online data they put out there now.

Consumers can start by learning about the problem. While people are more aware of data security issues today, the steps many take to protect themselves online are often woefully inadequate.

Think you're being safe by using your Google Chrome web browser in "incognito" mode? Think again. That only deletes your local browsing history on your computer. Google and websites are still collecting data on you.

How about the do-not-track setting on major browsers? That setting provides false comfort to users. The system is voluntary and websites can ignore your requests not to be tracked.

"You're not actually getting any privacy with those browser settings," said BestVPN.com's Walsh.

Internet Ads Can Go From Creepy To Painful

The first signs of personal-data tracking often show up through ads that follow consumers from website to website. For many, the ads just seem creepy. Sometimes, they go too far.

These advertisements may pitch vacation destinations you've checked out online or products you've searched for, or they can be based on personal data. Ads may know whether you're having a baby or getting married.

The trouble starts when companies target the wrong consumer. Facebook has been known to pitch baby clothes and other infant products to women who have had miscarriages, Walsh says.

"When you lose a baby, it's extremely painful. You don't want to get (baby product ads) after that," he said. "Facebook is very good at being able to tell what you want. But it's not very good at being able to tell when you no longer want those things."

A broken engagement is another situation that can lead to unwelcome ads targeted to the emotionally fragile, he says.

One investigation showed many popular smartphone apps share personal data with Facebook, even with no user connection to the company. Data includes shopping behavior and health information, including body weight, blood pressure, menstrual cycles or pregnancy status.

Online services have access to a lot of information about you. They know what you're searching for, articles you're reading and videos you're watching. They know your political preferences and lifestyle choices. Some smartphone apps know your current location and exactly where you've traveled.

Web services can use that information to advertise products to you or sell your profile data to other firms. Often the commercial uses of personal data are innocuous. But, as the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, the data can be used for political manipulation or other nefarious ends.

Triggers For Consumers To Act On Internet Privacy

Will consumers fight back? Most aren't going to follow in the footsteps of fugitive National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and take exhaustive measures to hide their identity online. Using sophisticated VPNs, encrypted messaging apps, "burner phones" and other spy gear isn't something the average consumer is willing to do.

Similarly, the "Delete Facebook" movement resonates with some, but not for people with large family and friend networks on the service.

But consumers have their boiling point. Identity theft, data breaches and creepy ads are prompting more people to protect their data online, says Gabriel Weinberg, chief executive of DuckDuckGo, a maker of browser extensions designed to protect users.

"Concern (about internet privacy) just keeps rising and rising," Weinberg said.

To combat creepy ads, browser extensions that block cookies and other trackers are a good start. Stopping the trackers behind invasive ads also can reduce the possibility of data breaches.

With Facebook, users can limit their data exposure on the site and off it, experts say. Every profile detail, photo, post, like and shared article on Facebook should be reconsidered from a privacy perspective. Also, taking the easy path of signing into websites with a Facebook or Google account gives those companies more of your personal data.

As consumers become more educated about the issue, they are more likely to take action, Weinberg says.

Data Security Businesses

Some companies are trying to build their businesses based on consumer data security.

Apple (AAPL) has made privacy a key tenet of its brand promise. Apple says it designs products, including the iPhone, from the ground up to protect your information. But third-party apps that run on Apple products may not follow the same principles.

Web browser maker Opera (OPRA) recently announced that its mobile browser for Google Android phones will come with a built-in virtual private network. The VPN will mask a user's identify from internet service providers and websites.

DuckDuckGo has created a popular alternative to Google's search engine that doesn't track your search requests. It also makes a browser extension that blocks web trackers from Google, Facebook and countless others.

How To Improve Your Data Security Online

Weinberg points out that many people don't know Google and Facebook track them even when they aren't on their websites.

One investigation found Google's location tracking remains on even if you turn it off in Google Maps, Search and other apps on Android phones and iPhones.

"Facebook and Google are the biggest trackers on the web," he said. "Google is on about 80% of web pages you visit and Facebook is on about 25%."

Weinberg contends that browser extensions such as his DuckDuckGo tool can block those trackers.

"We've been building our products as the easy step that consumers can take," he said. "When people realize there's an alternative that's a no-brainer solution that they can adopt that reduces their footprint seamlessly, they're totally willing to do that."

This month, Google rolled out a feature that allows you to configure how long it saves data from all of the Google services you use, such as search and maps. Before, you had to manually delete the data.

Now, you can tell Google to automatically delete personal information after three months or 18 months. To do so, go to the "Data and Personalization" settings on your Google Account page. Sign in (if you haven't already) and then go to "Web & App Activity," choose "Manage activity" and select "Choose to delete automatically."

Partnering With Companies To Protect Privacy

Because Google ties so many services to its popular search engine, DuckDuckGo has had to partner with other companies to provide secure alternatives for applications like email, maps and travel. Partners include Apple for maps, Yelp (YELP) for restaurant and business listings, and TripAdvisor (TRIP) for travel reviews.

"In almost every category, there is a decently more private alternative than Google," Weinberg said.

To protect your internet privacy, BestVPN.com's Walsh recommends avoiding Google Chrome and choosing a more privacy-focused web browser such as Tor, Firefox or Brave.

If you don't want to switch browsers, he recommends adding a privacy extension. DuckDuckGo has one such product called DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials.

Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is another. It blocks advertisements and tracking cookies that do not respect the Do Not Track setting in a user's web browser.

Please click here to read the original article on the Investor's Business Daily website.

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