Still, many tracking companies don't belong to any industry trade group and operate entirely without oversight. Of the 477 companies listed in Evidon's database of online trackers, roughly one-third have no group affiliations, and more than 800 tracking companies aren't listed at all.
"I don't think most companies are doing nefarious things with data," says Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum. "But they haven't done a good job convincing consumers they're using data to make their lives better. You can call it self-regulation, but that can't be the minimum standard. These companies need to commit to using our data only for good and engage in an honest debate over what uses of data we support and which ones should be curtailed."
Stealth computing: Technology for covering your tracks onlineWhen legislation and self-regulation fail, there's always technology. Today, anyone with decent computing skills can enjoy a relatively private Internet experience using off-the-shelf tools and services.
For example, Web surfers can use Abine's DoNotTrackMe, Evidon's Ghostery, or Disconnect to thwart Web trackers. Anonymous search engines like DuckDuckGo and Ixquick don't record IP addresses or other information that can be used to identify you. Services like PrivateProxy and HideMyAss can mask your IP address from the websites you visit. Tools such as Privacyscore and Priveazy help consumers make better decisions about what data to share, which sites to use, and what apps to install.
These free tools probably won't stop the NSA from spying on you, but they can help keep marketers and others from tracking your virtual movements and compiling profiles of your interests and habits.
The problem? These tools are at best inconvenient and at worst a total hassle. Many websites don't play nicely with them. Searching anonymously removes much of the personalization people have come to expect from Google and Bing. Surfing the Net via an IP proxy service can be painfully slow. And you'll have to set up these tools for every browser on every connected device you use -- desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone.
"What we need is a single download that lets you surf the Net in a more secure manner," says Gabriel Weinberg, founder of DuckDuckGo. "I don't think we have to get to 100 percent privacy. If we can get to 90 percent without sacrificing too much, that might be the sweet spot."
No company has yet to package all of these tools into a single platform that's simple enough for the average user, admits Andy Sudbury, CTO and co-founder of Abine. And the companies best positioned to build a privacy-by-design system -- Microsoft, Apple, and Google -- are all in the data collection business.