'Good evening everyone. Thanks for coming over for dinner! I'd like to introduce my friend, Joe.
"He's a Mets fan, drinks a little too much Miller Beer, is an inconsistent libertarian, and has been known to spend his evenings checking out his female coworkers' Facebook pages. Joe has high blood pressure and some disturbing PSA levels that just might indicate a prostate problem.
"And here's Carla. She likes HBO - a lot - drives a Chevy but dreams of an Audi, gets all her makeup from the discount counter at CVS, and is a secret smoker. She has a condo, waaay underwater, and visits a guy two buildings over in her complex rather late in the evening once or twice a week.
"And over here is Jack, who had a DWI last year and subscribes to HGTV magazine ..."
Well, that would be some dinner party, wouldn't it? I have a feeling a round of introductions like that would get things off on a bad foot.
But let's face it: All of that information - about Joe and Carla, me and you - is out there for the taking. Facebook is collecting information on what you look at, the better to target you for advertisers. Google is collecting your search history and your Internet provider has logs of your online travels.
(Visit www.komando.com/tips/11741/stop-google-from-tracking-your-search-history to learn how to secure your Google information. Go to www.komando.com/tips/11876/is-your-isp-tracking-you to learn more about your Internet Protocol address.)
Your credit card company knows what you buy. Even if you pay cash, your loyalty card records every purchase at the grocery or drugstore. All you have to do is use it in conjunction with a credit card one time to link up the data.
Your texts and emails, of course, are running through your phone company's servers, and even the prescriptions you buy are one data leak away from being public record, assuming your pharmacy or credit card company hasn't already inadvertently shared the information with data miners.
There's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that the horse is out of the barn.
The info that Big Data has on us is daunting, and a little bit scary. There is a complex network of folks who gather your data, including stores, websites, credit card companies, Internet providers and online services like your email program.
Then there are the companies whose names you've never heard of that combine it all into your own personal profile. Finally, there are the ad providers who take those recommendations and serve you up targeted ads.
And don't forget about any nosy government agencies snooping around and collecting data for their own use.
It's not a pretty picture. And you have to remember that most of what we do on the Web is free. This kind of advertising is the thing that's paying for the services we use. For better or worse, it's the world we live in, so it isn't going away.
The good news is that there are some steps you can take to minimize the risk. Here's what I do to sleep a little better at night.
1. Poke around in your browser preferences and make sure third-party cookies are disabled. Those are what advertisers use for tracking. Go to www.komando.com/tips/12053/stop-advertisers-from-tracking-you-online for instructions.
2. Change your birth date on Facebook. I would think this might make it a little harder for an advertiser to match you up with whatever profile they have on you, unless you have an incredibly unique name, of course!
3. Clear your Facebook and Google search histories in the settings. This doesn't completely wipe them out right away, but it does anonymize them. For instructions, go to www.komando.com/tips/12436/how-to-erase-everything-you-search-for-on-facebook and www.komando.com/tips/11741/stop-google-from-tracking-your-search-history.
4. Log out of Facebook when you're not actively looking at friends' posts. This keeps it from tracking your browsing through Facebook widgets on other sites.
5. Create one or more anonymous email accounts for your activities on the Web. There are also temporary email services like MailDrop. Go to www.komando.com/cool-sites/8091/avoid-spam-with-a-fake-email-address.
7. Go to Aboutthedata.com and see what's known about you. You can even go here and opt out of one advertising consortium's ad-targeting. Here's another disquieting place to look. Your Google account knows an awful lot about you; all of us should get in and limit the company's ad profiles of us. Go to www.komando.com/columns/442/protect-your-privacy-on-google. You can see what the service thinks it knows about you, and opt-out of future interest-based ads across the web.
6. Surf the Web using your browser's private browsing mode available in the menu. This keeps your browser from saving cookies that will alert sites when you visit again; you'll look like a new user. In case you need the steps on how to do this, go to www.komando.com/tips/12331/how-to-hide-where-you-go-online.
7. Your smartphone is tracking you too. Both Apple and Android phones let you block ad tracking. To see the ways to do it, go to www.komando.com/tips/12331/how-to-hide-where-you-go-online.
Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. Hear it locally at 94.3 WSC News Radio noon-3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, go to www.komando.com.