Unbeknownst to you, thousands of organizations are trying to observe your browsing history as you read your favorite website. See the tricks they use to track your activity and the tools you can use to block these online trackers.
The profiles these organizations create using that information can be surprisingly thorough. Many people do not even know they are being tracked, and those who do seem to accept that constant surveillance is the price you pay to be online. While the data these organizations collect are generally used to sell more targeted ads, having that information out of your control is a security risk and a privacy violation. No one should give up their right to privacy so easily.
Here we will discuss some of the tools and techniques you can use to block websites from tracking you, but before we begin, it is helpful to know how these services actually follow you.
How cookies track you on the Internet
Cookies are tiny bits of text that websites place on your device based on the websites you visit and the things you click on. This text can then be read when you return to the site, letting it “recognize” you and re-create your previously chosen preferences. These are what allow you to remain logged in to a site unless you deliberately log out. These types of cookies are called first-party cookies, since they come directly from the website you are accessing.
Third-party cookies are placed on your device by third-parties — not by you, not by the website you are visiting, but by secret advertising services. These advertising services then follow your device from site to site, trying to see what websites and topics interest you to improve the ads they show you. They can also end up with a thorough record of your online activity.
Generally speaking, first-party cookies are useful, while third-party cookies raise numerous privacy concerns. Fortunately, third-party cookies are easy to isolate. Most of the following solutions will focus on how to avoid or block third-party cookies.
Ways to block online tracking
One of the simplest things you can do to block third-party cookies is download an anti-tracking browser extension. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger uses algorithms to learn which third-party requests to block while Disconnect uses user-generated lists. Ghostery allows users to choose whether or not to grant permission to third-party trackers. All three of these browser add-ons are available for Chrome and Firefox.
For those looking for more robust and sophisticated ad-blocking tools, we suggest either AdBlock Plus or uBlock Origin. These plugins require a bit more user knowledge as they block third-party scripts and apps. This protects your data but can also leave the webpage you are visiting unreadable until you figure out which scripts need to be run.
Clearing and blocking third-party cookies
Once a third party has tagged you with its cookies, it can track you for months unless you regularly clean your device. Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Microsoft Edge all have options that let you clean out third-party cookies. These browsers also have options that help limit the ability of third parties to give your device cookies, although they are generally less effective than the browser extensions listed above.
Search engines that will not track you
Search engines are the highways of the Internet. They take us directly to the content we want. However, they often record and sell your search history, which for many people is the same as selling their browsing history. Search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Qwant do not track your IP address or log your search history, letting you access information with privacy.
Adjust privacy settings
Facebook and Google both have numerous ways to track and collect your data. This is the foundation of their business, so the privacy you achieve on these platforms will be relative. However, users do have some control over what data these organizations can and cannot collect. By setting your Facebook profile to private and by visiting Facebook’s ad preferences page, you can limit the amount of your information that the social network can collect and share.
Google gives its users control of what data it collects on their Account page. Users can decide how Google targets them with personalized ads and delete records of their search history. While using different search engines will help, remember that Google can also access your data via Android devices, YouTube, and Gmail.
Email services that will not track you
Protecting your online activity means nothing if you do not secure your emails. While most tech companies have stopped scanning private emails for advertising data, recent news stories have shown the practice still exists. The best option to keep your emails secure and private are end-to-end encrypted services such as ProtonMail.
Test for trackers
A quick way to evaluate the progress you’ve made in blocking third-party trackers is to visit the EFF’s Panopticlick or Am I Unique. These sites will show you the trackers that still have access to your online activity and help you see your device’s “fingerprint.”
Use a VPN or Tor
To avoid being tracked by your device’s IP address, you can use a VPN. This will route your Internet traffic through a VPN server of your choosing and replaces your IP address with the IP address of that VPN server. Be sure to only use trustworthy VPN services because the company you choose can access and record your online activity while you are connected to their infrastructure. Alternatively, if speed and performance are not major considerations, you can also use the Tor anonymity network, which encrypts your traffic while simultaneously routing it through multiple servers around the world.
There is no such thing as absolute privacy on the Internet, but you can take positive steps to limit your exposure. As there are many ways to track you online, for maximum protection, you should use a combination of the methods outlined above. However, even if you only use a couple of these tools, it will dramatically limit the amount of information online trackers can collect from you and help you take back control of your personal data.
The ProtonVPN Team
To get a free ProtonMail encrypted email account, visit: protonmail.com