We've all noticed targeted ads by now. The ones that pop up across webpages, social media platforms and streaming sites, flashing that item you left sitting in your online shopping cart three days ago. While those are signs you've been tracked, the implications of internet tracking can go beyond data collection and analysis for improved user experience.
Data brokering systems are sophisticated and feed a billion-dollar industry that is currently under-regulated. Governments, businesses, and individuals can buy information about you that has been gathered online, like your health status, contact details and even your location. Though the information acquired is not always used for sinister means, people need to know why and how they are tracked and what they can do to protect their privacy.
Why do websites track us?
- To optimise user experience (By monitoring a website's usability)
- To create a revenue stream (Some websites sell the data to advertisers)
- To aid law enforcement (By spying on suspicious individuals)
- To measure business performance (Website analytics to inform content strategies)
How do websites track us?
- Cookies, aka HTTP cookies, track your use of a specific website. (Note that third-party cookies store your data elsewhere and make it accessible to third parties)
- Web beacons, aka web bugs, track specific website engagement and sometimes email status.
- IP addresses are attached to all internet-connected devices, and websites can identify and use yours to track your activity.
- Session replay scripts record activity on a website, like clicks and movement.
- Favicons are essentially super cookies.
- Account tracking keeps track of activity when logged into an online account or platform.
- Mouse tracking records your mouse movements on a particular site.
- Browser fingerprinting stitches information about your device, system preferences, time zone etc., to create a unique identifier to track ALL online activity.
- Cross-device tracking matches up your browsing habits across devices.
- Click-through rate tracks user clicks on advertised content.
- Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) is the collective tracking of like-minded users.
What can you do about it?
Nowadays, we can be tracked from the moment we log in to our internet-connected devices. But we don't have to be. Here are some quick tips:
1. Adjust your privacy settings across devices
- Reset advertising identifiers to create a new unique identifier.
- Disable location tracking where it's not necessary.
- Revisit tracking controls after software updates, and check individual application settings.
- Disable ad personalisations.
- Go to your browser settings to disable site cookies. (Some sites may opt not to recognise this)
- Check smart TV privacy settings and opt out of platform/app tracking.
2. Enable 'do not track'
Enable 'do not track' in your browser settings. (Note this is only a request, and it's up to the individual website to honour it)
3. Decline cookies
Click decline or no when a new website asks for permission to track you with cookies. (This can disable certain website features, and websites do not have to honour your request)
4. Use an ad blocker
These are browser plug-ins, ad-blockers that block ads. (This does not stop data collection but can prevent targeted ads from tracking)
5. Go incognito
Browsing in an incognito window means no cookies should be saved to your browser. (IP address still visible to sites visited as required)
6. Look for HTTPS
HTTPS at the beginning of a URL is an indication of a secure site. This means your data will be handled securely.
7. Consider a VPN
A virtual private network helps to anonymise your browsing activity through encryption, even throwing off your IP address' geolocation.
8. Use a private search engine
These help protect your private information and swear off tracking but often cost. Try Avast Secure Browser.
9. Opt-out of targeted advertising
Groups like the Network Advertising Initiative have created tools to help you opt out of targeted advertising. These are device-specific.
10. Opt-out of data broker sites
These sites collect your personal information and sell it to others to verify your identity, detect fraud, or determine eligibility for everything from credit to insurance. Use an opt-out tool to take back your data from these sites.
11. Use a tracker blocker software to tackle multiple concerns at once
Norton's AntiTrack is an app or browser extension that obscures one's digital identity from tracking and fingerprinting attempts by sending back randomised dummy data to sites, helps hide your geolocation and automatically blocks cookies.