3 Easy Steps to Prevent Online Tracking

Mmm…. Cookies

As discussion continues about government surveillance programs another, lesser-known, spy has already infiltrated your computer. These little inconspicuous spies sound sweet enough, but their implementation and use is sometimes sour. I’m talking about cookies, of course. Many, perhaps even most, of the websites you visit use cookies. In some instances cookies are harmless, and actually quite useful. These benign cookies allow you to fill out forms faster, predict what you might search for, log into sites quicker, and remember what was in your shopping cart if you leave the site. All of this from previous information collected by your input into your computer.

There is, however, a darker side to cookies, the sour side. Some cookies are placed onto your computer and continue sending your surfing habits to the advertisement server (a third party, neither you, nor the website you visited). The easiest examples of these sites is Facebook and Google. They place cookies, that you don’t even know are there, and collect information about your browsing habits. So that as you continue browsing, the ads you see are directed at your personal interests.

For example; I have a Facebook account. I also have a PS3 that I love to play Battlefield 4 on. Sometimes I watch videos on YouTube about Battlefield 4. So next time I log into Facebook, I might see an ad on the sidebar for the new Battlefield game, Hardline. This ad is directly aimed at my browsing history. I didn’t explicitly authorize this tracking, and Facebook never even told me that they were doing this. Troublesome, eh? Websites do this in order to increase their revenue. Every time you click an ad on any site that website gets paid anywhere from pennies to dollars. Therefore, being able to target ads at the individual greatly increases their chance of getting you to click that ad.

Websites that use this scheme usually offer free content and information. They simply don’t have the manpower or resources to develop their own advertisements. Thus, they enlist the help of a third party ad server. This third-party (e.g. ad-sense, DoubleClick) is what places the cookies on your computer. So at this very moment you could have several different cookies all tracing your activity online. They know that you are visiting this very page. And will, in the future, place advertisements on the sites that you visit based on your browsing history.

Steps To Prevent Tracking

What if you’re like me and you would rather not divulge information instantaneously about yourself as you search the net. Honestly, it bothers me when I see a Battlefield Hardline ad. First, because… duh, I already bought it. Secondly, because I don’t know what other kind of information they have collected on me. Luckily, for people like myself, browsers have built in some ways to avoid being tracked. And luckily for you, I have compiled a list of some of the easiest ways to do this.

1. Simply browse anonymously sometimes. I have this friend who enjoys watching adult videos online from time to time. He, however, has a girlfriend who isn’t particularly fond of this habit. They use the same computer and sometimes when she gets off work she notices a new entry on the browsing history. He’s tried just deleting the browsing history when he’s done: but that’s kinda obvious, isn’t it? What he can do instead is turn on private browsing only while he needs it. Cookies are not collected and his girlfriend is oblivious to his activities. If you use Google Chrome this is accurately called ‘Incognito’. To turn it on, all you have to do is hit the menu button on the top right of the Chrome browser, and click ‘New Incognito Window’, or hit Ctrl+Shift+N. This brings up a new tab in a new window that saves you the hassle of having that awkward conversation with your significant other. In Internet Explorer this action is called ‘Inprivate’ and the shortcut is Ctrl+Shift+P or you can find it on the new tab page. On Firefox, its simply named ‘Private window’ and can be accessed by the menu button the top right, or by right-clicking the link and choosing the option to ‘Open Link in New Private Window’. The shortcut here again is Ctrl+Shift+P.

2. Send a Do Not Track Request to every page you visit- Okay, the effectiveness of this one is questionable. Firefox, Chrome, and Explorer all have this option available. Like the name suggests, when you visit a site your browser simply requests for you not to be tracked. It is up to the website you are visiting then, to decide whether or not they will honor it. All reports suggest that most websites do not honor it, but nonetheless, it is an added layer of protection. For Firefox it is found under Tools> Options> Privacy tab. On Explorer click the settings button on the upper right, go down to safety, and click on ‘Turn on Do Not Track Requests’. On Explorer 10 this setting is on by default, but subsequent versions the default will be off. On Chrome it is found by going to Menu> Settings> Advanced Settings, there is a box there that you can check.

3. Turn off cookies completely- This will disable all cookies, even the benign kind. Meaning forms will no longer autofill, and you better go ahead and pay for any items in your cart before you leave that site. In Chrome you can find this under Menu> Settings> Advanced Settings> Content settings. In Firefox, it’s found under Menu>options> Privacy tab. And in Explorer click settings> Internet Options > Privacy Tab> Advanced.

So there you have it. Three incredibly simple ways to avoid being tracked by cookies online and increase your anonymity. If you would like to take this a step further and I recommend you do. You can take this a step further and install some browser plugins that will really enhance your privacy online. It just so happens we have compiled a list of the four top browser add ons to protect your privacy.