Big Brother: who tracks us on the Web

The Internet continues to find its way into the private lives of its users. Here, we brief you on the most common methods of online tracking.

Once a user looks up a laptop or a slow cooker online, advertisements from online stores will begin to appear as if from the horn of abundance. This is exactly how contextual advertising works: There are numerous legitimate methods for tracking a user’s online activity. Today, we’ll tell you how you can get rid of the most commonly known trackers.

Who is watching us?

There is a simple and comprehensive answer to this question: basically, everyone.

Users are under surveillance from practically every popular resource, but advertising networks take the lead; the most popular ad networks include Google Adwords (DoubleClick), Oracle Bluekai, Atlas Solutions (a Facebook division), AppNexus, etc. Those are followed by the likes of access counters and other web analytics tools.

Social networks are not far behind, either. Popular video hosting sites (for instance, YouTube), the AddThis service, and the comment-enabling Disqus plugin follow closely. Social networks don’t just track your activity on your wall: today, any website has buttons or widgets by popular web services that enable user tracking.

Tracking methods

There are plenty of them. The ability to get basic user data is the cornerstone of the web: the browser voluntarily gives away your IP address, information on software versions or display resolution used, etc. When combined, this innocent information is a good starting point for more action on the side of the advertiser.

Cookies, small files saved after your browsing session, contain authentication information, preferences, frequently visited website sections, etc. Cookies, in their most popular iteration, are used to track the person by his/her unique identifier and then gather relevant data.

Targeted advertising

On the left news says: “Russian scientist poured over himself a bucket of liquid nitrogen”. On the right ad says: “Sale of nitrogen in Khabarovsk”

As we have already noticed, social media buttons are a powerful and convenient tracking tool; moreover, social networks, contrary to ordinary web pages, know you by name and access a significant portion of additional data.

There are more exotic tracking methods, although their use is limited. For instance, the Adobe Flash plug-in employs a system of storing trackable “local objects”. A PC can be identified even via cached browser contents. So, the methods are indeed numerous.

How does tracking hurt?

We know little about the types and volumes of data accumulated by advertisers; they’d never tell and a User Agreement is usually a murky blurred piece of legal speak. You can only take guesses as to what it all means.

Online tracking is not as innocent as it may seem. Even if you have nothing to hide, there is a disturbing question: Who might get their hands on the tracking data which Internet companies, whether with good intentions or not, accumulate in large volumes?

There is no proof this information is stored safely: major leaks of thousands or millions of user credentials frequently make headlines. That’s why you should take steps towards limiting greedy corporations in their efforts to know everything about you.

Protection methods

There is only one 100% efficient approach: turn off your PC and lock it down in a safe box

There is only one 100% efficient approach: turn off your PC and lock it down in a safe box, together with a smartphone, a tablet, and even a TV should it be smart too. With other methods, success is not 100% guaranteed, but we will list the most efficient and simple anti-tracking options.

Firstly, change some browser settings. You can effectively opt-out of tracking; in this case, the browser would notify a web resource that you do not wish to share user date by signaling a headline: Do Not Track. This method is based on the assumption that a tracking agent is honest, so its efficiency is debatable: many websites plainly ignore DNT.

Moreover, a user must disable automatic add-on installation and enable such options as blocking suspicious web sites and pop-ups and a compulsory SSL certificate check.

One important action here is blocking third party cookies (meaning advertising network cookies and not your web site cookies). With that in mind, you should take into consideration that, with help of a couple of proven tricks, an advertising network is able to transfer first party cookies, which are needed to enable one-time authentication and are never opted-out.

Today’s browsers offer a feature of private browsing in a separate window: as soon as it is closed, the data on the session is wiped out, which significantly complicates tracking. Using this mode, you can easily browse through all websites not requiring authentication.

Also, success can be achieved by on-demand plug-in activation (launching Adobe Flash by click, etc). And do not forget to clean up your browser’s cache.

And, finally, say no to search panels, search helpers, and any other extensions offered as you install your browser – they are legal spyware downloaded with the user’s consent.