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Rally for online privacy in New York in 2016.
Justin Lane, EPA

It can seem that it’s a lot easier to complain about your lack of privacy online than to do something about it. But your alternative to griping isn’t a monastic, offline existence.

Here are four steps to understand who has your data, limit their use of it, and leave less “data exhaust” that can be used to trail you.

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See how Facebook & Google see you

In online advertising—that is, online interest tracking—there’s Facebook and Google and then everyone else. Both companies can know more about you than other firms online. Fortunately, both also let you see and edit their profiles of your tastes.

To check the social network’s sense of you, visit facebook.com/ads/preferences. There, you’ll see interests Facebook thinks you have, advertisers using customer lists to market to you and, most important, settings governing whether Facebook can target you with ads on other sites.

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Google's Chrome browser.
Paul Sakuma, AP

Google’s comparable settings, at https://adssettings.google.com/, allow the same look at your perceived interests and let you decline to have it focus ads based on your search history or your use of Google services. You can also see Google’s guess of your gender and age.

Since Amazon is now considering launching its own ad network, you should check your ad settings there—and stop it from“retargeting” you across the Web with ads for your latest Amazon searches. Visit amazon.com/adprefs in each browser you use and select “Do Not Personalize Ads from Amazon for this Internet Browser.”

FACEBOOK TRACKING LAWSUIT
News Media Alliance is looking for antitrust exemption to negotiate with Facebook and Google.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND, AFP/Getty Images

Use a privacy-protecting browser

Most of the eyes watching you on the Web sit on other sites, in the form of ads and widgets that let Facebook, Google and other ad networks monitor your activity outside their own realms. Two browsers can easily curtail that tracking.

The current version of Apple’s Safari, included in macOS High Sierra and available for the two prior releases, includes “Intelligent Tracking Protection” that constrains this cross-site tracking to the last 24 hours of your browsing. It works sufficiently well to have enraged ad-industry groups.

Mozilla’s Firefox browser offers a similar tracking-prevention feature, based on the privacy service Disconnect, but you have to enable it in Firefox’s settings.

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People gather in the Firefox booth at the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile phone trade show in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. The global wireless show that wraps up on Thursday has seen a push to get mobile devices cheap enough to reach emerging markets without sacrificing so much performance. While the affluent crave the latest iPhones or Android phones, most of the world can't afford the hundreds of dollars they cost. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez) ORG XMIT: MF104
Manu Fernandez, AP

Don’t use the same search engine in every browser

Setting at least one browser on one device to use a search site besides Google can obscure Google’s gaze.

Microsoft’s Bing comes closest to matching Google’s features—its mapping site even includes some bus services that Google skips over, although it still lacks the cycling directions Google added in 2010. As one of the included search options in Google’s Chrome, it’s also one preference change away in that browser.

For tracking-free searches, try DuckDuckGo. Its complete lack of personalization can make queries there less accurate than Google’s, but in my experience its bigger flaw is not letting you limit a search to particular dates (a failing Google recently inflicted on the desktop version of its news search). In a Twitter direct message, DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg said search-by-date is coming: “Yes, we are actively working on that feature.”

Spread your business around

The best thing you can do over time to defend your privacy online is not to give all your business to one company. Yes, Google has a great mapping site, but that doesn’t mean you need to use its note-taking or messaging apps. Facebook works wonderfully for keeping up with friends, but there are better places to follow the news or get restaurant reviews. 

Diversifying your online habits may require more mobile apps and browser bookmarks, but a little complexity is a cheap price for more privacy and less dependence on any one tech giant.

More: 3 ways to start the year with a digital clean slate

Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.