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Technology

How to Lock Down Your Personal Data

If you feel as if your computer is stalking you and you want it to stop, a host of free tools and software can take you off the grid—or at least limit the amount of information you share.

The best place to start is with your Web browser, says Rob Shavell, co-founder of Abine, a privacy company. All browsers offer tools that allow you to block cookies, the little bits of computer code designed to track you or remember your preferences. To engage the privacy settings, hit the “tools” or “settings” button on your browser and choose a privacy level. You can also download Abine’s free software, which blocks third-party cookies -- the type that telegraph your activity to strangers, as opposed to those that help you complete a purchase on Amazon. You can do much the same by going to Disconnect.me, a site launched by former Google executive Brian Kennish.

Networks representing roughly 90% of the Web’s behaviorally targeted advertisements have joined a voluntary program that will search your system to tell you how many advertising networks have planted cookies on your browser and allow you to block some or all of them. Go to www.aboutads.info if you want to opt out of advertising cookies. If you want to erase information from the public data files at sites such as Spokeo, PeopleFinders and Intelius, you can opt out of these directly or hire a serv­ice such as DeleteMe (an Abine sister company) that will complete the process for you for between $75 and $99. (DeleteMe also offers a tutorial on how you can delete yourself free.)

What’s the catch of going incognito? A number of Web functions are triggered by cookies. If you disable them, some things simply won’t work, says Kennish. The solution? “We have a turn-off button,” says Abine’s Shavell. “We work very hard to make sure you retain some privacy without breaking the functionality of the sites you’re on.” It works most of the time, he adds. When it doesn’t, flip the switch off, but remember to flip it back on when you leave.

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Consumers also need to realize that everything they do on the Internet could become public eventually, says Kennish. Even if the site you’re on has a strict privacy policy, these policies can -- and do -- change. “To the best of your ability,” he says, “stop sharing data that you don’t want to be public.”