How to Restore Your Digital Privacy With Online Tracking
In our new How To Do It series, we’ll give you everything you need to know to get started and succeed in a wide range of technologies, both online and offline. Here we show you the different ways you can track your information online and how to keep your data safe from prying eyes.
Tracking a person used to require a deep knowledge of nature, a keen eye, and perhaps one or two dogs. Currently it only takes a little code and a few clicks to do this.
As you already know from apps that ask you to register as soon as you arrive at your destination, or websites that provide you with ads based on the last thing you bought on Amazon, your digital maneuvers are closely monitored. If this makes you uncomfortable, there are steps you can take to prevent Big Brother from constantly looking over his shoulder. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most common ways you can be tracked online and a few steps you can take to reclaim a little more of your cyber privacy.
First-party and third-party cookies
One of the oldest tracking methods on the Internet. Cookies are pieces of text that are placed on your computer by certain websites based on your online activity. When you return to the site you visited, the site reads the text and recognizes certain information about you.
While cookies have acquired an infamous reputation over the years, they can actually be quite useful. Since each visit to the website is unique, cookies can serve to establish your relationship with the website that would otherwise be lost. So, for example, if you create an account with Amazon, a cookie will direct the site to access items left in your shopping cart or on your wishlist during your last visit. Some cookies also allow you to stay on the site until you intentionally log out. This way, if you visit Facebook several times a day, for example, even if you close the browser tabs in which you are viewing the site, you do not have to log in every time.
You can think of cookies as an event bracelet. If you go to a concert and wear a bracelet, the door workers will recognize you if you leave and return.
Cookies that are placed on your computer by sites pointed to by your browser, such as Amazon in the example above, are considered first-party cookies and most people do not have any particular problems with them. A little more complicated is the case with third-party cookies. These are cookies that are placed on your computer by advertising service companies and placed on sites that do not belong to them. Read, for example, an article in an online magazine, and ads shown in the middle of the text can leave a cookie on your computer, which can then track your surfing from now on. This supposedly helps advertisers show you relevant ads, but for some, this practice can definitely feel like spying.
Fortunately, maintaining the functionality of essential cookies and addressing privacy concerns of third-party cookies is easy by simply monitoring your browser settings. You can simply search to find out how to block third-party cookies depending on the browser you are using, or simply click here to view Chrome instructions ; here are instructions for Firefox ; here for instructions on Safari ; here for instructions on Opera ; and here for instructions on Microsoft Edge .
While your own and third-party cookies are pretty simple, like sugar cookies, today’s online world uses more complex cookies that are more like, say, raisin and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Chief among these are Flash cookies, also known as Locally Stored Objects or LSOs. They work like regular cookies, but instead of storing snippets of text in the same place where your browser stores information, the code is stored along with your Adobe Flash data. Since they are stored on your computer and are browser independent, advertisers can access the information stored in these cookies through browsers. Fortunately, deleting cookies as described in the links above will also delete your LSOs.
If you really enjoy receiving targeted ads during your surfing sessions but are against long-term tracking, one option you might like is to set your browser to clear your cookies when you close it every day. Following the links above will take you to the security settings area of each browser, where you can find this option.
There are fingerprint extensions that you can install in your browser, such as CanvasFingerprintBlock ( Chrome only), but they are not always the best way to block this tracking method. This is because while it is true that using a blocker will prevent your browser from displaying an image, the fact that you are using a blocker can primarily act as an identifier to help you establish your fingerprint. Instead, try using an extension like Canvas Defender, which is available for Chrome and Firefox , or Canvas Blocker ( Firefox only), which actually adds noise to the image you draw on your computer, helping to hide your identity.
This is how trackers can use your computer’s visual component to track you. What about sound?
Another form of fingerprinting can be done by trackers that monitor your device’s battery power. In the same Princeton study discussed above, researchers found that advertisers can use the HTML5 battery health API, the code by which much of the Internet is developed. The code is supposedly designed to let sites know how much battery power is left on the device and, if it’s discharged, modify the served content to use less power. But it looks like it also helps the fingerprint as another data point that paints a picture of who you are as a surfer.
“Some companies may be looking at monetizing access to battery levels,” one researcher wrote in a blog post. “When the battery runs out, people may be prone to some – otherwise different – solutions. In such circumstances, users agree to pay more for the service. “
If you’re using Gmail, all you need is a simple Google Chrome extension called Ugly Mail to see how many emails you are tracking in your inbox. The app flags messages containing tracking pixels, which are used to tell senders when you opened an email, which links you clicked on in that email, and where you were when you took any action. These pixels can be found in many marketing emails, and while it is clear that such emails track your behavior, you may simply not want to disclose this data to the companies that send them.
While Ugly Mail is only available for Chrome, if you’re using a different browser, you can use private email services that don’t track you, like RiseUp . You can even go a step further with email services that encrypt your messages, such as Hushmail or ProtonMail from Switzerland.
While tracking is used by hundreds of companies on the Internet, two are worth looking at, specifically Facebook and Google, as they analyze users in a very comprehensive way.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook tracks your every like, click, tag, and photo on the service. But you may not know that the social media giant can also track your online movements with its almost ubiquitous Like button. Any site you visit that contains this button will send information about your travel travels over the air to Facebook if you are logged in. Combined with facial recognition software that tags you in photos that don’t have to be your own; a good idea of where you will be throughout the year thanks to the events you signed up for; and quizzes from third-party apps that tell you exactly which groups you like, which foods you are most likely to consume, and what your favorite brands are, and it becomes pretty clear how much Facebook is really following you.
It can also track your shopping habits both in the app itself and on sites with a Like button, which gives it a pretty good idea of your financial situation, especially since it can easily know which vacation you’re taking. what events you attend and what restaurants or shops you register.
There are steps you can take to limit the amount of data that Facebook can collect about you, although if you’re really concerned about privacy, it’s best to bypass the social network altogether.
First, to restrict the app’s ability to track your movements based on where your mobile is located, on Android phones go to your settings, go to Apps, search for Facebook, tap Permissions, and turn off Location.
For iOS, you can restrict Facebook’s access to your location by going to the privacy menu in settings. (You can also enable Limit Ad Tracking here to reduce another tracking item you regularly use on mobile devices. To do the same on Android devices, go to Google in Settings, then Ads and toggle the radio button next to Opt out of ad personalization.)
Then, to limit the number of Facebook followers online, go here and change the top two options to no.
This page will help you control how you interact with Facebook ads. Fill in certain information in “your information”, where you can restrict the type of information – for example, your marital status – Facebook allows advertisers to access.
Finally, you may not be aware of this, but people who have access to your information can bring that information with them when they use third-party apps on Facebook. To prevent this from happening, visit this page , click Edit under Apps That Others Use, and uncheck any data fields that you don’t want to be thrown around the social network when your friends subscribe app after app.
Do you know how Google seems to know what you need, even before you do? This is because the search giant is very good at tracking you and using algorithms to anticipate your needs. Some people call it useful; others call it creepy. If you fall into the later camp, you can take steps to limit the amount of data Google collects about you.
While Facebook can track your activity on any page using the Like button, Google can keep track of most of the sites you visit or search for if you are logged into your account while browsing. In 2016, the company changed its tracking policy to combine personal information from Google-owned utilities like Gmail and YouTube with your browsing history, according to The Guardian . As is often the case with this kind of maneuver, the purported reason is to provide you with an easier online experience and advertisements that suit your interests. But if that doesn’t matter to you, you can turn off this feature by visiting your account management section and unchecking the box you’ll find there.
Luckily, on the Manage Actions page, you’ll also find all the other options you can use to control what Google can and can’t do. In most cases, this is as simple as flipping a switch to the off position. Don’t want the company to track your movements? Set the switch to Location History. Don’t want events to auto-fill in your calendar? Turn off the switch next to Device Information.
One of the more interesting areas to explore on the Action Controls page is the Voice and Sound settings. You may not be aware of this, but Google not only keeps track of your typed searches, but it also stores a record of your voice queries. Here you can not only hear them, but also delete them and block them from storage in the future if you don’t like listening to yourself, begging Google to tell you where the nearest place to buy ice cream was on the night you were in deep grips of the chewing gum attack.
Equally addicting is the Google Timeline feature , which shows you where you’ve been on the planet. But then again, if this causes you more grief than surprise, there is a button at the bottom of the page that you can use to disable this feature.
Finally, if you’re tired of seeing ads on the web for a product that you immediately looked at, or worse, just bought, you need to visit Google’s ad settings . Here, you can not only see and remove interests that Google thinks you want, but you can also turn off ad tracking entirely by toggling the toggle next to “Personalize ads.”
Other ways to protect your privacy
The specific steps suggested above can certainly help limit how easily you are tracked online. Aside from these tips, there are several other ways to keep your online activities private, including using a VPN , browsing the web with the Tor browser, and enabling private browsing in your browser. (This is all detailed in our article on how to surf the Internet without leaving a trace .) You can also customize do not track instructions for your browser: instructions for Chrome are here; Safari ; Firefox ; Opera ; Edge .
Once you have taken steps to limit the number of people you track on the Internet, go to Panopticlick or visit the Am I Unique website to check your browser fingerprint. If you are not happy with the results, follow a few more steps recommended above and you can certainly lighten the footprints you leave as you surf the net.