Category: Privacy

Nextdoor’s Questionable Marketing Tactics

Nextdoor is a social networking website with a focus on neighborhood connections and local resources. If your neighborhood isn’t already connecting through Facebook groups or other means, Nextdoor might be a useful option for doing so.

Now, if you’re already a Nextdoor user, we should go over their marketing tactics. They’re a little bit sus, in the parlance of the younger generation. To attract new users, Nextdoor commonly mails letters to people. On paper, through the USPS. These letters invite you to join up for free and try out Nextdoor.

But now here’s the sus part: These letters often drop names of people in your neighborhood. They mention your neighborhood by name, as well. They’re a little uncanny, and many people read these letters and smell a scam. There is no scam! But it sure looks sketchy…

We can’t stop Nextdoor from this marketing behavior. But we should be aware that Nextdoor may use your name or other PII on their marketing letters to others! Unless, you deliberately opt out, and here’s how to do that:

On a computer

  • Visit the Nextdoor website and sign in.
  • Click the account bubble to the upper-right, and then click Settings.
  • On the left, click Privacy.
  • Scroll down to the Invitation letters section, and turn off the toggle next to “Allow Nextdoor to mail letters on your behalf”.

In the Nextdoor app

  • Open the Nextdoor app and sign in.
  • To the lower-right, tap More.
  • Scroll down and tap Settings.
  • Tap Privacy Settings.
  • Scroll down to the Invitation letters section, and turn off the toggle next to “Allow Nextdoor to mail letters on your behalf”.

ISP Data Collection

I hear from many people who are grumpy about all the personal information that Google and Microsoft are collecting. And I won’t deny that those companies are making money off of your web searches and use of their software. But I want to challenge you to think in a different direction. Did you know that your ISP is doing the same thing?

The company selling you your internet connection (Shentel, Xfinity, Verizon, Spectrum and more) collects data about you. Everything you do over their internet connection is fair game. And while they are sworn to protect your privacy, they are also allowed to use their collected data to advertise to you, or sell your data to 3rd-party companies.

The FCC made an attempt to limit this practice in 2017, but did not succeed. The FTC has been studying ISP Data Collection Practices, but it remains to be seen what good will come of their reports.

So what can you do about this? I don’t have a perfect answer or silver bullet for you, but here are some ideas:

Contact your ISP and use any tool they offer to opt-out of their data collection practices. While the law allows them to hoover up your data and make money off of it, they are also legally obligated to give you a way to opt-out!

You could use a VPN. Or Private Browsing mode. Or the Tor browser. But none of those are great solutions, and I don’t recommend them. ISPs may still gather info about you, despite your use of these tools, and they’ll cost you money or time as you try them. The root of the problem (the law) is not addressed by these tactics.

Communicate with your state legislators, and ask them to promote laws that deal with this issue. Some states have legislation in the works that may clamp down on ISP Data Collection. Let your government know how you feel about your personal information and what ISPs are allowed to do with it!

Privacy-Oriented Search Engines

Most searches on the internet are carried out through Google Search. But not everyone wants to use Google, Bing or the other big search engines. These companies usually track you through your searches, and use that information to better advertise to you.

If you’re looking for a search engine that respects your privacy more or collects less of your data, here are some safe & easy alternatives to try:

DuckDuckGo

Ecosia

You.com

Brave Search

Startpage

Swisscows

These search engines may still rely on Google search results or other big engine technology. But if you read their promises, they’ll still gather less info on you, and prevent the big companies from studying you as you search the web.

Paywalls & Private Browsing

Last month, I posted the basics about Private Browsing, but I skipped mentioning one of its important uses: Bypassing paywalls. When a website insists that you pay for access, Private Browsing can sometimes get you in without payment or logging in.

This most commonly works for news websites and other pages that offer you “5 free articles this month” before requiring you to sign up and buy a subscription. If you really need to read an article behind a paywall, you can try to right-click the link to the article and open the link in a Private Browsing/Incognito window. Or, you can copy the URL to the article, open a separate Private Browsing window, and paste it onto the address bar.

This works based on the cookies and other temp files placed on your computer by the website in question. When you switch over to a Private browsing window, the website cannot detect or place cookies on your computer. Having no cookie access, the website cannot know if you’ve viewed 1 or 5 or any number of its articles. So it may treat you as a new visitor & just let you in.

I have hesitated to broadcast this, as I don’t want to encourage Not Paying For Journalism. Many news media companies are suffering financially, and I don’t want to add to their financial woes. So I would like to ask that you consider using this tip as comparable to taking a free sample at Costco. If you find yourself returning again and again, for many free samples, please consider paying for what you are viewing. That company you are taking from needs your support!

Private Browsing

These days, all web browsers offer a function called Private Browsing. Let’s go over what Private Browsing is and isn’t.

Private Browsing allows you to use the internet so that no traces of your surfing are saved or left behind on that computer. Whatever you do while Private Browsing disappears from that computer as soon as you close the Private Browsing window.


You should use Private Browsing if you are at a public computer. For example: At the library, you should always use Private Browsing! Check your email, use Facebook, etc. and when you close your private browsing window, your logins and other website traces vanish. The next person to use that computer will see no evidence of where you surfed, and your passwords will not be saved.

You might also use Private Browsing if you’re borrowing a computer from a friend or employer. That way, when you return the computer, you won’t have to worry about others seeing your internet history or login information. Also, if you’re doing some holiday shopping and worry that your spouse might get nosy, you can use Private Browsing to hide your tracks.

Private Browsing does not anonymize or conceal your internet behavior, outside of the computer you are using. Your activity is still traceable beyond the computer being used to surf the internet. Most ISPs keep logs on what their users visit and do on the internet, and Private Browsing does not prevent that.

As an example, let’s say someone starts a Private Browsing and commits a crime on the internet. Someone will (hopefully) report that crime. A competent investigator will trace the crime to an IP address, which will lead him to an Internet Service Provider. The ISP will (often quickly) cooperate to offer a physical location for that IP address. And then an officer is dispatched to knock on soeone’s door with questions and possibly an arrest warrant.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I will implore you: Do not commit crime over the internet. Treat other people on the internet as you would in meat-space.


Each browser calls their Private Browsing tool something different. So that you can learn the name and usage for your browser, here are some help articles and details for the most common browsers:

Microsoft Edge: InPrivate Browsing

Google Chrome: Incognito Browsing

Safari: Private Browsing

Mozilla Firefox: Private Browsing

Opera Browser: Private Mode

Safe Browsing Protection in Google Chrome

The Chrome browser offers a choice of protection as you surf the net. If you use Google Chrome, you should review your level of protection, and change it according to your needs.

If you go to this website, Google will tell you the steps to follow, in order to check your “Safe Browsing” setting. Make sure to click your device type (Computer, Android, or iPhone & iPad) to get appropriate directions.

Once you find this setting on your device, you have 3 choices: No Protection, Standard Protection or Enhanced Protection. Read the descriptions and make a choice based on what’s best for you.

If you have privacy concerns and don’t want your extra browser info sent to Google, just choose Standard Protection. If you need all the help you can get against malware and bad websites, set it to Enhanced Protection. If you’re a web developer or advanced user, perhaps No Protection will interfere with your work the least.

Is This Thing On?

Are we being surveilled by our devices? I don’t know for sure. Important people at Facebook and Amazon insist their apps are not snooping on us. They swear their apps only access your microphone with your permission, and only when you’re using the app. But I can’t say I’ve ever been 100% convinced by their responses.

And it gets a little eerie when the advertising on our devices resembles what you were just talking about with your friends. One minute you’re chatting about how you miss eating at Outback, and the next minute, your browser is filled with mail-order steak ads. Is Big Tech listening in, 24-7? Or is coincidence combining with constant marketing to create paranoia?

Whatever the answer, you should know that you can review your device’s Microphone permissions at any time. Your computer/tablet/phone will tell you which apps have access to your microphone.

For PCs, check out the steps on this page: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4468232/windows-10-camera-microphone-and-privacy

Apple computer users, read: https://support.apple.com/guide/mac-help/control-access-to-your-microphone-on-mac-mchla1b1e1fe/mac

On an Android phone or tablet, try going to Settings -> Privacy -> Permission Manager -> Microphone. For iPhones and iPads, it would be Settings -> Privacy -> Microphone.

With these settings in front of you, you can revoke any app’s permission to use your microphone. And you can give it back, later, as desired. Feel free to experiment with these, if it gives you a little extra peace of mind.

Webcam Surveillance Concerns

Modern laptops have built-in webcams, something that we’re all becoming more accustomed to using these days. And when you use your webcam, a light appears next to it. This is to signal to you that your camera is live and capturing your image. When the light goes out, you can assume that it is off.

But there are exceptions to this, rare occurrences that create privacy concerns. The FBI does possess software and skills that can activate a webcam without triggering the light or any other sign. And I’ve just read about a school system that monitored students without notification or consent through school-issued computers.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbins_v._Lower_Merion_School_District

The newest laptops with webcam come with a physical switch that you can use to close your webcam lens. This is best, and you should use it, so there is no question about when the camera is active or not. If your computer has no closing device for the webcam, then you might consider getting a webcam cover, like:

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=webcam+cover&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

Or if you know that you will never use your webcam, you can do like many and affix a post-it or band-aid over the camera lens .In any case, please be aware that your webcam is a vector for an unknown amount of surveillance. It’s probably highly unlikely that someone is watching you… but still, govern yourselves accordingly in front of those things.

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