Previously, we found out the various ways websites can track their users, along with a case study of how AOL accidentally released their search data, exposing more than half a million users and their search terms.
How can we protect ourselves from becoming the next victims of Internet tracking?
Unfortunately, the short answer is that in this day and age, there is no sure way to stop the Internet from tracking you. The only way you can definitely stop being tracked is to never connect to the Internet.
That said, there are various measures you can take to shield yourself a little against Internet tracking.
Be Careful With Unsolicited Emails
Most modern email clients should protect you from web bugs by preventing the loading of images in emails. If you see an email from a sender you do not recognize, ensure that your email client will not load embedded images before you open the email. Also, avoid clicking any links in the email as this could easily tell the other party that you read the email and clicked a link in it, due to the HTTP referrer header. If you must visit a link in an email from an unknown sender, try copying the link and pasting it in a new browser tab instead.
Use an Ad Blocker
Some websites may really be using ads as a supporting source of revenue, but an increasing number of sites are employing intrusive and tracking ads. Using an ad blocker helps prevent these ads from showing up and tracking the page you’re visiting. And if you wish to support websites that display unobtrusive ads, you can whitelist them accordingly on your ad blocker.
Most ad blockers also block web trackers. If you are using or planning to use an ad blocker, it’s worth checking out if they also protect you from web trackers, which can be used by social networks to track your actions and collect your data even on other websites.
Choose Your Browser and Search Engine Wisely
With access to your entire browsing and search history respectively, your browser and search engine could be harvesting a lot of information from you. Google Chrome, one of the most popular browsers, is notorious for keeping logs of what users enter into their address and search bars. Even if you browse in Incognito (or private mode), that doesn’t stop browsers from potentially logging your data. It is also a known fact that many search engines store records of what their users search for, as seen in AOL’s search data leak. If you are concerned about privacy, it may be worth checking out a few privacy-centered search engines such as DuckDuckGo and Startpage.com, which show you search results from search engines such as Google without revealing your information and search terms to the tech giant. In fact, Startpage.com pays Google not to track and log any data from any searches done on Startpage.com. Other alternatives are Gibiru and Swisscows, which use their own search algorithms instead of relying on search results from major search engines.
Browsers and search engines change over time, and their privacy features may change as well. To stay up-to-date on how best you can protect your privacy when browsing and searching, look up privacy tips for your browser and search engine online.
Block Third-Party Cookies
If you visit two webpages with advertisements from the same ad network on them, you can be sure that the ad network is keeping a tab on that information. And since there are only a few major ad networks commonly used by websites, the chance of that happening is rather high. Ad networks use third-party cookies to track this information, so if you don’t want them knowing which websites you have visited with advertisements on them, have a look in your browser’s settings and turn on the option to block third-party cookies.
If you have the option of choosing open-source software, it’s usually best to go for it. Open-source software will have its source code out in the public and available for anyone to scrutinize, meaning that the creator of that software cannot hide any tracker in it that nobody knows about.
For the average Internet user, these measures are sufficient to keep us from being unnecessarily tracked. However, if you wish to take your privacy one step further, have a look at the following:
Try Tor Browser
If privacy is your utmost concern, Tor Browser would provide plenty of privacy in exchange for speed. It aims to make all users look the same, masking the user agent, browser details and operating system. Users can choose a route across at least three servers in different countries, thus hiding their true IP address. Any data sent remains encrypted until the last server, which can be one drawback of Tor Browser – it is impossible to determine who has access to this last server with your unencrypted information. Additionally, since data has to travel through so many routers and finally be decrypted, webpages load significantly slower.
Look Into Using a VPN
A VPN service masks your real IP address and can make it seem as if you are in a different location. Additionally, any data transmitted is encrypted, so that not even your Internet service provider will be able to monitor your online activities. Most VPNs will allow you to choose a server to connect to according to the country it is based in. For instance, if you live in the United States, you can connect to a server based in Germany. When you visit a website, your new IP address will tell the website that you are a visitor from Germany. As such, VPN services are widely used for bypassing local firewalls to access websites that are blocked by your organization or country, such as Internet censorship in China.
One of the disadvantages of using a VPN is that most of them are paid subscriptions on a monthly or yearly basis, and you usually pay for what you get. While there are free VPN services out there that you can try to see if using a VPN is right for you, the free services tend to be more limited and possibly slower than paid services.
Some VPN companies are also known to keep logs of their users’ activity, so before purchasing any VPN services, you should do some research and be sure that you know what you are in for.
HTTPS Everywhere Extension
The Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation came up with the HTTPS Everywhere extension, which can be installed on Chrome, Firefox and Opera. It is also available on Firefox for Android. The extension aims to force websites you visit into using SSL (Secure Socket Layer) connections, encrypting any data and personal information you send to that website. Unfortunately, some websites contain third party media and some simply do not support HTTPS connection, so the extension is not a one-size-fits all solution. Nevertheless, it aims to be a step up in ensuring one’s privacy online.