In Why Trackers? we answered what trackers are and what purpose they serve. Here, we answer what you can do to have more agency.
Trackers on Apps vs Websites
Protecting yourself against app tracking is challenging because you are faced with the all-or-nothing approach. You use the app as-is or not at all and have few options to customize the experience. This is gradually changing, however, with Apple (creator of iOS) and Google (creator of Android) creating better device privacy defaults and providing more contextual settings that give you more control of your data. You can learn more about how to be more private here: How Can I Reduce My Digital Footprint or What can I do to protect myself online?
You have more options to control tracking through your browser*. We will focus on extensions because they are accessible, straightforward measures to take without having to tinker or learn more technical concepts. If you search for “privacy-protecting browser extensions” you will find a long list of extensions that do a wide variety of things with different impacts on your privacy, and potentially the overall experience. Here is more information about such browser extensions so you can decide what works best for you.
1. Use Blockers
What they are: Ad blockers and tracking blockers act in a very similar way. They stop and prevent future connections to third parties known for collecting information about your browsing patterns. The information could include what sites you visit, how long you stay, and what you do on the site, as well as other metadata such as what device you’re using and where you are physically located.
Potential downsides: Some of these blockers may also block connections that affect how the website works. However, it tends to be very easy to disable them for a specific website or during a session. Another downside is that some blockers might be a memory hog, making your browsing sluggish.
Examples: Privacy Badger (Chrome, Firefox), DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials (which actually does a lot of the other things in this list) (Chrome, Firefox), uBlock (Chrome, Firefox), and Ghostery (Chrome, Firefox).
2. Consider using script blockers
What they are: These extensions go one step further. In addition to stopping connections, they also prevent all code or, in some cases, specific code that may look suspicious from collecting information. Suspicious activity could be collecting seemingly unnecessary information, like “browser fingerprinting” which we will talk about more in another post.
Potential downsides: Disabling all code will likely break a large number of sites. For this reason and others, script blockers are not used widely and tend to interfere with the performance of the websites you are visiting. However, this is changing, as more and more developers are creating sites that don’t rely on this as much in an effort to make the web more accessible.
3. Decentralize resources
What they are: There are some resources, like fonts, that tend to be loaded directly from a central repository to your device. This means that your device establishes a brief connection with a central repository, which is often owned or controlled by Google and other tech giants. Although the repository is free, the companies get to see everyone who downloads a specific font a website may need (and generally from where), which inherently allows them to track users. In contrast to blockers, it’s not as easy to just block these requests since these tend to be resources necessary for the site to function. But there are services that offer de-centralized libraries of these common resources. In addition to the resources, they promise not to track you and offer other technical protections.
Potential downsides: I’ve personally found these resources built well enough so that they don’t break sites or impair performance. If we find any downsides, we’ll be sure to update this!
4. Clean URLs of “tracky” metadata
What they are: Have you noticed when you click a “share” button or you click an ad, the links tend to be super long? Those extra numbers and characters actually contain information about you, like what site you’re visiting from, what browser you’re using, or what group of customers they’ve classified you in (which is probably why you received that particular email or ad). In most cases, everything after the “?” in the URL can be removed. You can manually remove these, or use extensions that do this automatically by removing those unnecessary bits.
Potential downsides: This is another type of extension with barely any downsides.
5. Clear cookies regularly
What they are: Cookies are a way for sites to keep information about you on your computer - as opposed to on their own servers and then having to remember who prefers what. However, this non-malicious method is also used to track us, logging information about our browsing behavior. You can regularly delete your cookies, but there are some extensions that will also do this for you.
Potential downsides: Removing all cookies can lead to having to re-login into sites more often or having to reconfigure some site settings. But, these extensions give you more flexibility to remove the bad stuff (like most third-party cookies) and keep the harmless cookies.
6. Containerize your web browsing - using multiple online “alter-egos”
What they are: An example of good hygiene in the kitchen is using different utensils for preparing meat than for preparing vegetables. An example of good digital hygiene is using different browsers for different purposes. In other words, use one for your shopping and one for your social media accounts. This makes it hard for social media trackers to figure out what products you have browsed and bought. However, using different browsers can be annoying. Firefox has an official extension called Multi-Account Containers, which allows you to mimic this without having to handle so many browsers. With multi-container accounts, you can create new “profiles” easily, and even set them as default for certain websites so that it automatically uses that particular profile.
Potential downsides: I’ve personally been using this for years and love it. It is even helpful when you are trying to handle multiple accounts for the same site without having to log out and log in each time you need to switch. You just open each one in a different container and you are done! At the start, it might take some getting used to opening certain types of sites on certain containers, but it quickly becomes second nature.
Examples: Firefox Multi-containers. There is also a separate extension (that works well with or without the Multi-containers) called Facebook Container that will create a specific container for Facebook and keep it separate from the rest, automatically.
Beware of some “solutions”
There are many kinds of browser configurations out there to help protect yourself from being tracked. They range from simple tools like blockers to more technical options. But please be careful. Sometimes when protecting ourselves, we simply shift our trust from one place to another. In trying to skirt Google’s reach we might end up giving all our traffic information to a nefarious actor. We need to be careful about who we trust and why.
Like any market, the consumer privacy market has its share of double-faced services. From VPNs and antiviruses to unsubscribe-me services, some have been found to use parts - if not all - of your data for their profit. So, when trusting a service with your information, login information, etc. it's worth doing a bit of background research (especially if they are "TOTALLY FREE!")
If you’re new to practicing privacy, start with blockers. They are easy to use and pretty effective. As you get more and more comfortable knowing what to look for and what questions to ask, you’ll be better able to use the internet on your terms.
Thank you to Jared Maslin and Jessica Traynor.
* A browser allows you to access and view websites