In the first place, and speaking of data privacy, have you ever wondered why some online ads you see are targeted to your tastes and interests? Or how websites remember your preferences from visit-to-visit or device-to-device?
The answer may be in the “web tracking cookies” installed on your computer when you visit a website, and other online tracking methods like:
- Device fingerprinting where information is collected about your device for the purpose of identification,
- Cross-device tracking technology which enables the tracking of users across multiple devices such as smartphones, television sets, smart TVs, and personal computer, and
- Cross-site tracking where companies collect data on where you’ve been and what you’ve done across multiple websites.
What is a web tracker?
A web tracker is a small computer program (called script) placed by a website on your computer and is designed to collect information about your preferences and who you are as you interact with the site. Sometimes this script is placed purposefully by the website you’re on, other times a script may be from a website you’ve never visited.
Ordinarily, although people do not expect their data to be sent to, and collected by, third-party companies as they browse the web, it happens all the time, and in places where people do not expect.
Mozilla notes, for example, that about 72% of people do not expect that Facebook uses “Like” buttons to collect data about a person’s online activity on websites outside of Facebook (even when the buttons are not actually clicked).
Types of web trackers
Web trackers come in many forms and go by different names like cookies, super cookies, embedded scripts, fingerprinters, pixel dusts, social media trackers, etc.
Social media trackers, for example, are those creepy ones employed by social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. They place these trackers on other websites so they can follow what you do and see online.
Who Places Cookies And Trackers On Your Computer?
First-party cookies are placed by the site that you visit. They can make your experience on the web more efficient. For example, they help sites remember:
- items in your shopping cart
- your log-in name
- your preferences, like always showing the weather in your home town
- your high game scores.
Third-party cookies are placed by someone other than the site you are on. For example, the website may partner with an advertising network to deliver some of the ads you see. Or they may partner with an analytics company to help understand how people use their site. In addition, these “third party” companies may also place cookies in your browser to monitor your behavior over time.
Consequently, as noted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), over time, these companies may develop a detailed history of the types of sites you frequent, and they may use this information to deliver ads tailored to your interests.
The Dangers of Web Tracking to Data Privacy
While tracking can sometimes be helpful in that they personalize our web experiences and make websites work better, there can’t be a healthy trade-off between the value it provides and the data it collects without transparency by keeping users informed in a way that’s easy to understand and telling them who sees their data, who it’s shared with and giving people the option to say they don’t want to be tracked if they don’t like it.
Web tracking can be viewed as an invasion of online privacy in the guise of providing “relevant content” when all you want to do is go about your private business online. The case can indeed be made that the goal of web tracking is “…to hit you with targeted, uncannily relevant ads (You know that medical condition you’d like to keep under wraps, yet you still see medication for it on Facebook? Yep, that’s trackers snooping on you.)”
Another example is if an advertising company notices that you read a lot of articles about running, you may suddenly start seeing ads about running shoes – even on an unrelated site you’re visiting for the first time.
Additionally, web tracking scripts and the ads they push to users could lead to what’s called drive-by downloads where a user visits a website infected by malware and inadvertently downloads a virus.
It could also lead to identity theft if the pilfered private data is now used by cyber criminals to lure the unsuspecting user to a dangerous website that then steals their login information.
How To Protect The Privacy Of Your Online Data
In the event that you find web tracking troubling, there are a few things you can do to protect your data privacy.
First, use web browsers that give you some control over what web sites do on your computer. These would be browsers like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Brave, to name a few. They come with some form of privacy protection features built-in.
Second, you can tackle the creepiness factor by using the “Private Browsing” option in your web browser. This makes it harder for third-parties to track your search history across multiple sites.
When you browse in a private window, the web browser will not save the pages you visit, the cookies that were dropped on your computer, what you searched for, or temporary files.
Additionally, you can deploy tools like browser extensions that are specifically built to block web trackers. A few that can be found for both Firefox and Chrome are:
- NoScript: it will only allow active content for trusted domains of your choice to prevent exploitation.
- uBlock Origin: this one blocks ads and malware domains based on curated blacklists.
- Facebook Container: allows you to stop Facebook tracking. It does this by isolating your Facebook identity into a separate “container” to prevent Facebook from tracking you around the web.
- Privacy Badger: blocks invisible trackers and spying ads that follow you around the web
It is worth noting that a web browser like Firefox has built-in tools to prevent data privacy invasion with a feature called Enhanced Tracking Protection. This tool automatically blocks third-party tracking cookies, fingerprinting, and browser-based cryptominers, as well as the most common social media trackers from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and LinkedIn from following you around the internet.
Significantly, the Enhanced Tracking Protection feature is geared toward helping ordinary every day users of the Firefox browser combat what Mozilla calls the use of “dark patterns” by web tracking operators to push people to “consent” via cookie/consent banners.
To explain, “dark pattern” is a practice where consent management interfaces (normally used to allow or deny data collection) are often designed in such a confusing manner that users are tricked into agreeing to be tracked.
According to Mozilla, since July 2019, the Enhanced Tracking Protection in Firefox has blocked over 450 Billion third-party tracking requests from exploiting user data for profit, and the number is rising sharply.
To demonstrate, users can see which specific advertising firms are tracking them across websites by clicking on the shield icon to the left of the address bar in Firefox and scrolling down to a label that says “Blocked”. This will display a list of social media and third-party advertising cookies that are currently being blocked on the website they are currently visiting.
How Tech Prognosis Can Help
In the final analysis, while using the right web browser can help in the fight against the invasion of online privacy and the selling of your personal information to advertisers, the best solution is to stop those trackers from showing up in your browser in the first place, no matter what browser, or device you use.
This can be achieved in two ways:
- By implementing Domain Name Service (DNS) protection which redirects users’ web traffic through a cloud-based, DNS security solution and can enforce web access policies, ensure regulatory compliance, and stop most Internet-based threats at the network’s edge – before they ever hit the network or your endpoints, and
- Web content filtering, a security policy that allows certain network traffic based on the sender, receiver, interface, traffic type, and time of day. The web content filter provides an advanced threat protection from malware, malicious sites, phishing sites, ransomware, botnets, spyware and viruses.
Whether at home or at work, our BinaryGuardiansm Web Protection services can prevent these dangerous scripts and ads from following you around the web by stopping them from tagging along the legitimate website you are visiting.
Call us at (512) 814-8044, or contact us for a demonstration or even a 30-day trial.