Every time you visit a website, thousands of organizations try to track your browsing history (unless it allows device tracking). The profiles these organizations create from this data can be surprisingly deep. Many people don’t even know they’re being tracked, and those who do seem to agree that constant surveillance is the price you pay for being online.
If the information collected by these organizations is often used to sell targeted advertising, checking that information is a security risk and a violation of privacy. No one should give up their right to privacy so easily. Here we go over some tools and techniques you can use to prevent websites from tracking you, but before we get started, it’s useful to know how these services actually track you.
How cookies track you online
Cookies are small pieces of text that websites place on your device based on the websites you visit and the things you click on. This text can be read when you return to the website, in which case it will recognize you and recreate your previously selected settings. They allow you to log in to the site unless you log out on purpose. These types of cookies are called first-party cookies because they come directly from the website you are using.
Third-party cookies are placed on your device by third parties – not you, not the website you visit, but hidden advertising services. These ad servers then track your device from site to site, trying to see which sites and topics you’re interested in so they can improve the ads they show you. They also get a comprehensive view of your online activity.
In general, first-party cookies are useful, while third-party cookies cause many privacy problems. Fortunately, it’s easy to opt out of third-party cookies. Most of the following solutions focus on avoiding or blocking third-party cookies.
Eight ways to avoid being tracked online
Use browser plugins
One of the easiest things you can do to block third-party cookies is to download an anti-tracking browser. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger uses algorithms to determine which third-party requests to block, while Disconnect uses user-generated lists. Ghostery allows users to choose whether or not to allow third-party tracking. All three of these browsers are available for Chrome and Firefox.
For those looking for more powerful and advanced ad blockers, we recommend either AdBlock Plus or uBlock Origin. These extensions require a little more user knowledge because they block third-party scripts and applications. This protects your data, but may also leave the web page you’re visiting unread until you figure out which scripts to run.
Block third-party cookies
Once a third party has tagged you with their cookies, they can track you for months if you don’t clean your device regularly. Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Microsoft Edge have options that allow you to delete third-party cookies. These browsers also have options to help limit the ability of third parties to place cookies on your device, although they are generally less effective than the above browsers.
Use search engines that don’t track you
Search engines are the highways of the Internet. They take us directly to the content we want. But they often store and sell your search history, which for many people is the same as selling your browsing history. Search engines like DuckDuckGo or Qwant do not track your IP address or record your search history, allowing you to access the information privately.
Adjust your privacy settings
Facebook and Google have many ways to track and collect your information. This is the basis of their business, so the privacy you get on these platforms is relative. However, users have some control over what information these organizations may and may not collect. By setting your Facebook profile to private and visiting Facebook’s ad settings page, you can limit the amount of information about you that the social network can collect and share.
Google allows users to control what information it collects on their account page. Users can choose how Google targets them with personalized ads and delete entries in their search history. While using different search engines helps, remember that Google can also access your data through Android devices, YouTube, and Gmail.
Use email services that don’t track you
Protecting your online activity means nothing if you don’t protect your email. While most tech companies have stopped scanning private emails for advertising data, recent news has revealed that the practice still exists. The best way to keep your email secure and private is with fully encrypted services like Proton Mail.
A quick way to measure your progress in blocking third-party trackers is to visit EFF’s Panopticlick or Am I Unique. These sites will show you the tracked devices that still have access to your online activity and help you see the “fingerprint” of your device.
Use fingerprint protection
Use a VPN or Tor
You can use a VPN to prevent your device from being tracked based on your IP address. It routes your internet traffic through the VPN server of your choice and replaces your IP address with the IP address of that VPN server. Be sure to only use trusted VPN services, as the company you choose can access and record your online activity while you’re connected to their infrastructure. Alternatively, if speed and performance are not important, you can use the anonymous Tor network, which encrypts your traffic and routes it through multiple servers around the world simultaneously.
There is no such thing as absolute privacy on the Internet, but you can take positive steps to limit your exposure. Since there are many ways to track you online, you should use a combination of the methods described above to ensure the best protection. Using even just a few of these tools will greatly limit the amount of information online stalkers can collect from you and help you recover your personal information.