C is for Customized
Cookies are what makes browsing experiences feel customized for the user and that’s something we have come to expect in our digital age. Cookies remember your preferences, the items in your Amazon shopping cart and your user name, among other things. So yes, cookies are important mini-files that make your experiences on websites feel like they were tailor-made for you.
Third-Party tracking cookies
But then there are third party cookies that have been placed on sites by advertising networks. These cookies get stored in your web browser with the intent of collecting data on you for marketing purposes. Essentially, they watch and record your every move as you traverse the internet. Why? Because your likes, dislikes, and browsing habits are worth a whole lot of money to advertisers. Ads that are targeted specifically to your browsing history are much bigger moneymakers that non-targeted ad campaigns.
There is some logic here; Let’s imagine you’re on the lookout for a new refrigerator. You head over to Google to check out prices and models. Afterward, you should expect that ads for refrigerators are going to follow you around from website to website. This is because advertisers can see that you’re in the “new fridge zone” and they’re hoping that you’ll click on one of their ads and that your ad click will eventually convert into a sale. Targeted ad campaigns such as this have greater conversion rates than non-targeted ones and are therefore bigger moneymakers.
The thing is that with all the data these third party cookies collect about you, over time, these companies can actually create a pretty accurate picture of, well, you. And that’s a thought that, justifiably, makes people pretty uneasy.
For the record, ad tracking isn’t evil incarnate; there are much worse things to be aware of on the internet. But everyone deserves a say in how their personal information is used and tracking without permission may just violate those rights.
Tools to block third-party tracking
Fear not, there are some ways to combat the rampant tracking out there on the internet today. If the idea of being watched gives you the creeps, here are some privacy-minded steps you can take:
Enable do Not track: Sure, cookies are a normal part of surfing the web but you can choose to disable them by going into your browser’s settings under “Privacy” and choosing to “Send a Do Not Track Request” to websites. In theory, at least, this means that websites shouldn’t place tracking cookies into your browser but it doesn’t really work out like that. Honoring the request on the part of websites is voluntary and thus an unfortunate amount of websites will still take the liberty of tracking. As far as privacy moves go, this is a pretty weak one.
Set up incognito mode: Also called Hidden or Private mode depending on the browser you use, this is one of the easiest ways to stop some of the effects of tracking. Note we said “some”, and that’s an important caveat. Hidden/private/incognito mode does keep your website history from being stored and reported to ad networks. But your IP address can still be tracked and your internet service provider and websites that you log into will still recognize you, leaving you open to some forms of tracking.
Use HTTPS everywhere: You already know to look for the added “S” and padlock when completing any kind of financial transaction on the internet. The S means that the information being transferred uses the Hypertext Transfer Protocol over Secure, which is a secure data transfer protocol. Created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the leading non-profit digital rights groups, their plugin forces websites that use the regular not-as-secure HTTP data transfer protocol to use HTTPS, thereby enhancing the security and privacy of your data through encryption.
Use privacy badger: Another great creation from EFF, the Privacy Badger browser extension blocks advertisers that do not respect Do Not Track settings from covertly tracking web users.
Use a private search engine: Here is a fact you already know but probably don’t want to think about too deeply: Google is tracking you. In a big way, too. In fact, if you have a Gmail account (which, c’mon, you probably do) and you use Google to search the web (which, yeah, you probably do too) they are able to harness both of these sources of information to…you guessed it, build an accurate picture of you! Instead, use a private search engine like Startpage (formerly Ixquick) or DuckDuckGo that won’t store any information, ever.
Use a VPN: Virtual Private Networks create a secure, encrypted “tunnel” from your device to the VPN server, ensuring the security and privacy of your connection. It also hides your IP address, making it look like the traffic is coming only from the VPN service provider. The best part? With a VPN, you can use public WiFi spots safely. Two considerations when it comes to using VPNs: The VPN provider can still see your traffic, so it would be wise to do your research on providers before making any decisions on this one. It might also slow your internet connection down somewhat.
Use TOR (The Onion Router): To achieve near-total anonymity, consider using the famed (or infamous, depending on your perspective and the news reports you’ve read) TOR browser. By routing your traffic through a network of encrypted layers, the user’s origin is very well hidden. Anyone who tries to sniff your web traffic only sees the relay computers moving all the traffic around from layer to layer. This means that advertisers can’t track you at all but the drawback is a noticeable performance slowdown. Political dissenters and whistleblowers aside, many privacy advocate experts agree that using TOR is perhaps a bit of an overkill for average web users.
These methods aren’t foolproof (not even TOR), but in truth, to greatly increase your online privacy you don’t need to achieve 100 percent anonymity. What you need is a solid understanding of what’s at stake and what you can do to mitigate the effects of tracking. And the more methods you use, the better off you’ll be. Of course, saying “Oh, I’ll just DuckDuckGo that” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as effortlessly as “I’ll just Google that” but if blocking ad tracking matters to you, then these are all good ways to start.