Who’s Tracking You on the Web and Why you Should Care

Published by: Andrew Paul    |   Category: Blog, Privacy    

Companies will pay big bucks to learn more about you, what websites you go to and what you do when you get there. It’s no secret that there’s big money to be made in violating your privacy. Service providers on the web are eager to get their hands on as much information about you as possible. If you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product, not the customer, and it’s never been more true. These are companies that tracks your every move on the web to learn as much about you, your browsing habits and activities as possible. Weather you believe it or not; your personal information is valuable. You may be like 95% of the people who use the Internet and say to yourself, “Who cares if they track me on the web”. You might ask yourself, “what information could these companies possibly know or track about me” and you would be very surprised. They collect information about people, their demographics, income, habits, and then roll it up so they could get a complete picture about who you are and how to convince you to buy their products or services. In some cases they will design web sites and campaigns to convince you to provide even more information in exchange for a coupon, discount, or the simple promise of other offers. It works very, very well.

The real money is in taking your data and aggregating it while combining it with third parties to help come up with new ways to convince you to spend money, sign up for services, and give up more information. Relevant ads are nice, but the real value in your data exists where you won’t see it until you’re too tempted by the offer to know where it came from, whether it’s a coupon in your mailbox or a new daily deal site with incredible bargains tailored to your desires. It all sounds good until you realize the only thing you have to trade for such ‘exciting’ bargains is everything personal about you: your age, income, family’s ages and income, medical history, dietary habits, favorite web sites, your birthday…the list goes on. It would be fine if you decided to give up this information for a tangible benefit, but you may never see a benefit aside from an ad, and no one’s including you in the decision.

Below is a graph showing my morning browsing history, as seen by these “cookie monsters” who tracked my every move on the web as I drank my first cup of coffee. This graph is generated by a Firefox plugin called Collusion. Collusion is an experimental add-on for Firefox that allows you to see which sites are using third-party cookies to track your movements across the Web. It shows, in real time, how that data creates a spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.

Privacy - Collusion Graph

OK, so what’s next? How can I protect my privacy?

Below are your options broken down by your browser of choice.

Chrome & Firefox:

Adblock Plus – With it, you can banish social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ from transmitting data about you after you leave those sites, even if the page you visit has a social plugin on it.

Ghostery – Ghostery does an excellent job at blocking the invisible tracking cookies and plug-ins on many web sites, showing it all to you, and then giving you the choice whether you want to block them one-by-one, or all together so you’ll never worry about them again.

ScriptNo for Chrome – ScriptNo is much like Ghostery in that any scripts running on any site you visit will sound its alarms. The difference is that while Ghostery is a bit more exclusive about the types of information it alerts you to, ScriptNo will sound the alarm at just about everything, which will break a ton of websites.

IE9:

Microsoft – has published a tracking protection add-in for IE9 to stop them.

Mobile & Tablet:

Some mobile browsers have private modes and the ability to automatically clear your private data built in, like Firefox for Android, Atomic Web Browser, and Dolphin Browser for both iOS and Android. Considering Dolphin is our pick for the best Android browser and Atomic is our favorite for iOS, they’re worth downloading.

Is there any foolproof way to browse the Internet totally anonymous from your own computer, phone or tablet?

There actually is and we will be covering this in another Email Answers Blog article coming soon.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.

8 Responses to Who’s Tracking You on the Web and Why you Should Care

  1. Slim Pickens says:

    Very good article. It’s amazing how much of what individuals do online is tracked. I personally use Ghostery and think it does a pretty good job of not allowing everyone and there mother to know where I have been….

  2. Maggie says:

    Perhaps another concern is that although the data may be provided for one purpose, it can be reused later with another intent and then connected with additional information to thread together for even greater transparency/insight.

  3. Sven Skinderson says:

    I wonder if these companies track your every move to show you more relevant offers or for other reasons?

  4. Dana Bostick says:

    The collusion add-on for Firefox is pretty interesting. It was mentioned in another article I was reading about privacy and looked interesting so I installed it. It basically provides a pretty graphical display of who’s tracking you when you go to a website. It’s fun to clear the graph and then just click on a link or go to a common website that you normally use in and look at the graph to see all the cross-linking it’s going on. If you don’t frequently clear the graph, the display gets pretty busy and is dynamic as you mouse around on it. It very soon reaches the point of “too much information” to absorb. Still kind of fun to play with.

  5. Frank James says:

    It got me to thinking, what if they took all the data they routinely collected and combined it? Even worse, what if Google was able to attach that data to specific users via their Gmail or Google+ account? Imagine how much knowledge these companies would have of your activities online, your interests and things you may not want anyone knowing.

    While it is highly unlikely most companies use this research for nefarious purposes, tools like Collusion help to shed some light on who is gathering the data and maybe how to shield yourself from some of it.

  6. Jim says:

    There’s a lot of discussion about privacy and tracking on the web these days. There’s plenty of hyperbole, but the issue is real, people generally give up certain amounts of expected privacy to use websites and web services. It’s pretty much a given and it’s a barter everyone has to make to enjoy most of the web.

    But it doesn’t have to be that way, at least, that’s what Mozilla hopes. It’s been a big advocate of user privacy and user rights in particular, one of the few in a place where users are not the customers but the goods being sold.

    Mozilla is working on several ways of empowering the user, the Do Not Track header, an initiative adopted by most big advertisers, even Google, or the nascent BrowserID which would offer users an alternative identity service one which doesn’t need as much data on you as it can possibly gather to make the most money.

    Still, Mozilla is not against tracking and is not against companies making money online. Rather, the bigger issue is not the tracking itself but the lack of disclosure and the fact that users have too little information on what companies and sites have on them, how they are tracked and what they can do about it.

    This is where Mozilla Collusion comes in, being a tool designed to keep track of the trackers. More to the point, it’s meant to enable users to get a clear, visual representation of how their regular browsing is being tracked and how many third-party websites, advertisers, Like buttons, share buttons, analytics sites and so on, are loaded for each site they visit.

    The add-on is in the early days, for now it doesn’t do much besides display a nice graph of who’s tracking you. In the future, Mozilla wants to use this data to build a database of known trackers, and how they work, in the hope of finding ways to bypass them, if users want to.

  7. Keith says:

    Why would anyone even care who tracks where you go online? I don’t see the big deal…

  8. Jeff says:

    One trick is to go into the Tools/Options/Privacy tab and disable third party cookies.

    I use Cookie Monster to manage cookies, but it’s not really a problem at all. With 3rd party cookies disabled on the browser level I’m not seeing any tracking going on.

    Bouncing around a lot of sites to test, and the Collusion graph is still black with nothing on it.