Is Your Favorite Website Spying on You?

You know the rules to protecting your privacy online. You guard your passwords and login information, account numbers, social security number, and other identifying information.

You know that it’s common sense to keep that kind of potentially compromising data safe. But what about your likes and dislikes? Your regular schedule, and frequently visited locations? How’s about your age or profession?

This information mmay seem harmless to mention that kind of information on an online forum, or reveal in a web search. Who keeps track of such minutiae anyway?

But in the Information Age, that kind of data can be a gold mine. Information is the new currency, and there are companies making their fortunes from compiling, analyzing, and selling your personal data.

It’s a booming industry: a glut of companies are lurking in the shadows of the Internet, gathering your data to sell it to anyone who’s willing to pay the price. These so-called “data brokers” can easily follow your digital trail by using your browser cookies and other ingenious tracking methods.

And it’s not just general statistics, demographics, or overall trends that they’re selling. Many data brokers sell dossiers on individuals, complete profiles that include your name and personal information, without your knowledge or consent. These dossiers can include sensitive information such as medical history, political and religious affiliations, and sexual orientation.

There are no regulations for companies such as these. If you want to keep your personal data private and not let anonymous companies bid over it, you have to take matters into your own hands to block their efforts.

Unfortunately, some of the techniques they use are quite sophisticated and difficult or impossible to block if you want to still use many of the most popular sites and services on the Internet.

But there are ways to limit a lot of the tracking these companies do. Follow the steps below for more information on how to protect your private data from being sold to the highest bidder.

Is your favorite website spying on you?

Transcript: How Much Tracking Is There on Your Favorite Website?

Every time you browse the web you leave behind a digital trail of choices, likes and locations. Tracking this footprint has become a pervasive, lucrative and controversial business.

Who’s Tracking Your Browsing?

By using DoNotTrackMe and Ghostery – two leading privacy extensions that track the trackers – the web’s biggest trackers can be revealed.

Many of the worst culprits are household names, but there are many others you’ve likely never heard of before.

A small number of international corporations dominate tracking, filling owned 3rd party domains with their trackers.

How Many Trackers Are Used on the World’s 10 Most Popular Websites*2

Trackers are surprisingly sparse on the world’s most popular sites.

How Do They Do It?

Most tracking is done by cookies – small lines of data sent to your browser by the webpage you’re visiting. Each cookie helps identify your preferred settings, load the right content, recognize your passwords, etc.

However, the websites also load content – flash, images, social buttons and ads – from other servers that also send cookies. These 3rd party cookies track your browsing and feed the info to advertisers.

Across the most popular sites, advertising, analytics and beacons are the most prevalent methods of tracking.

  • Advertising
    • Uses cookies to store information such as your login details and shopping cart items, allowing advertisers to target you directly with products they know you’re interested in
  • Analytics
    • Gives statistics on user behavior and interaction with pages across a website, providing insights into what you find interesting
  • Beacons
    • Similar to analytics and use cookies to monitor your behavior and actions while on the website

These methods enhance your web experience as they tailor the sites you visit to suit your individual preferences. But is it an invasion of privacy?

Google and Facebook’s tracking software was unrecognizable to both DoNotTrackMe and Ghostery – two leading privacy extensions that track the trackers.

This suggests that both sites use advanced proprietary software for their own tracking.

Although you might want to stop tracking, some software is unblockable – AddThis is one such program. Using a technique called canvas fingerprinting, it tracks browsing history to build a profile of the user.

How to Limit Tracking of Your Browsing

While you can’t eliminate trackers completely, you can take steps to keep them at bay. These guides take you through the steps.

Desktops and Notebooks:

Google Chrome
  1. Click ‘Settings’ in the dropdown menu in the top right corner. Click ‘Show advanced settings’.
  2. Open ‘Content settings’ from ‘Privacy’.
  3. Disable 3rd party cookies. You can remove all cookies in ‘All cookies and site data’.

Blocking sites from placing scripts on your hard drive (incl. 1st party cookies) will reduce website functionality.

  1. Browse in incognito mode to remove cookies and stop Google saving your browsing history.
Going incognito will disable all browser extensions, but the websites you visit can still track your browsing.
  1. In Ad Settings, choose to ‘opt out’ of interest-based ads. Do it every time you have deleted your cookies.
  2. Also on this page, find ‘DoubleClick opt out extension’. Click to install the DoubleClick opt-out plug-in.
Firefox
  1. Click ‘Options’ then go to the ’Privacy’ panel.
  2. Customize your browsing history settings.
  3. Set 3rd party cookie acceptance to ‘Never’. Set exceptions for the websites you trust.
  4. In ‘Show cookies’ you can remove all existing cookies.
  5. In the ‘Privacy’ panel select ‘Tell websites I do not want to be tracked’. Some trackers will ignore this request though.
  6. Download the Lightbeam extension for Firefox to see which 3rd parties are tracking your browsing on any site.
Internet Explorer
  1. Go to ‘Internet Options’.
  2. On the ‘Privacy’ tab, move the slider upwards and check the description of each level.
  3. Click on ‘Sites’ under the slider to set the cookie acceptance from specific websites. Type in the website name and choose ‘Allow’ or ‘Block’ cookies.
  4. Click ‘OK’ and then move the slider back to its default position.
  5. Click ‘Advanced’ to override the settings of the slider. Tell Internet Explorer what to do with different types of cookies.
Safari
  1. Top-left corner (‘Safari’) – click ‘Private Browsing’ and then click ‘OK’ in the confirmation panel.
  2. Choose Safari > Preferences > Privacy.
  3. In ‘Block cookies’ choose which cookies you want blocked.
  4. To see the cookies on your computer, click ‘Details’.
  5. If you block cookies, you may need to allow them individually to load some pages. Select ‘Never’ in the ‘Block’ section. After leaving that webpage, block the cookies again and delete the cookies the page has sent to your Mac.

Mobile

iPhone/iPad
  1. Go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising and turn on ‘Limit Ad-Tracking’.
  2. Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services and turn-off ‘Location-Based iAds’.
  3. Consider turning off other services on the list such as ‘Share My Location’ and ‘Location-Based Alerts’.
Android
  1. Go to Google Settings > Ads and select ‘Opt-out of Interest-Based Ads’.
  2. Disable location tracking in Settings > Location > Google Location Settings. Tap Location reporting ‘off’.
  3. Go back to ‘Location’ and tap ‘Location history’ off.
  4. Consider using Firefox Mobile as it allows filter extensions that Chrome doesn’t, i.e. Ghostery.

When you set up a new device, always begin with your privacy settings – after all, if trackers are going to swipe your data, they ought to work for it.

*1 By owned 3rd party domains tracking the 500 most popular websites in 28 countries in different regions

*2 Rankings taken from Alexa Top 500 Websites. Tracking was measured with Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus add-ons in a Mozilla Firefox browser with default cookie settings. Rankings accurate as of 9/16/2014.

Sources

  • The Top 500 Sites on the Web – alexa.com
  • Safari 5.1 (OS X Lion): Browse Privately – apple.com
  • Opt Out of Interest-based Ads from iAd – apple.com
  • Anatomy of the Third-Party Web Tracking Ecosystem – arxiv.org
  • Top 100 Websites: How They Track Your Every Move Online – digitaltrends.com
  • Download Ghostery – ghostery.com
  • Manage Your Cookies and Site Data – google.com
  • Browse in Private (Incognito Mode) – google.com
  • Opt out – google.com
  • Disable Third-party Cookies in Firefox to Stop Some Types of Tracking by Advertisers – mozilla.org
  • How Do I Turn on the Do Not Track Feature? – mozilla.org
  • Block, Enable, or Allow Cookies – microsoft.com
  • NeoMam Primary Research: Website Tracking – neomam.com
  • Meet the Online Tracking Device That is Virtually Impossible to Block – propublica.org
  • How to Stop Google and Other Services from Tracking Your Location – ndtv.com
  • The Web Never Forgets: Persistent Tracking Mechanisms in the Wild – securehomes.esat.kuleuven.be
  • This Is How the Cookie Crumbles – slate.com
  • Stop Facebook from Using Your Web History for Ad Targeting – wired.com
  • Web Giants Threaten End to Cookie Tracking – wsj.com

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