For many people, this is just assumed to be part and parcel of what the internet is. And if you like shopping online then seeing ads for things you might actually want, rather than things that you don’t, could be a good thing.
But when you dig beneath the surface, things start to seem a little more sinister.
What Is tracking?
It’s worth spending a little time looking at just what tracking is and how it works.
For this article, I’m not talking about the legal requirement of your internet service provider (ISP) to keep a record of the sites you visit, though that’s worth a mention. This legal requirement in the UK is outlined in the Investigatory Powers Bill and requires all ISPs to log for at least 12 months all Internet Connection Records (ICR) for every service they provide.
Section 50 of the bill defines an ICR:
“An ICR is not a person’s full internet browsing history. It is a record of the services that they have connected to, which can provide vital investigative leads. It would not reveal every web page that they visit or anything that they do on that web page.”
The official purpose is for the police or another government agency to be able to see data on what sites a person visited, which can be vital in terrorism-related cases, for example. It can, however, be requested for a wide variety of reasons and by a fairly wide range of government departments. There is little that you can do to avoid this, though, and so we’ll move on to what you can do.
Trackers are embedded into websites in cookies and other small bits of code that store things like auto-complete details for web forms and sign-in details you’ve chosen to let the browser remember.
They are also widely used to track your browsing activity for targeted advertising. Google is by far the biggest source of these types of trackers, with an estimated 75% of all websites using them. This means that Google knows what sites you are looking at, in addition to what you are searching for using their search engine.
It also means that even if you’re not using Google search to get to a webpage, Google and will still know you visited. If you use Chrome web browser it sends back everything you do to Google regardless of whether you use Google Search or not.
I would argue that just surfing the web without taking specific steps to block tracking gives away far more information about you to companies that mine data for advertising than the Internet Connection Records from your ISP give the police or the government. And they don’t need a court order to get it.
How Can You Stop It?
Here’s some good news: there’s quite a bit that you can do to limit the amount of data you give away about what you do online. I’ll cover off a few that I use, but this is by no means the end of it.
Choose Your Browser
If you use Apple, you get Safari. If you use Microsoft, you get Internet Explorer and Edge. These all do the same basic thing: they get you content. But they are not very customizable, are often a bit clunky, and probably send loads of data back to their servers about what you do because they all get revenue from targeted advertising.
Chrome is an incredibly popular browser, mainly because it’s made by Google, which is good at helping you find things. Chrome is also pretty fast, though it does use quite a lot of your PC resources in the process. It’s also, to be fair, very secure (if you ignore the fact it sends everything you do in it to Google).
Mozilla Firefox is one of the oldest alternative browsers around, and it’s also very fast. You also have a lot of options to customize it. It is also a very secure browser and includes some embedded privacy features. Mozilla do not collect user data beyond basic telemetry for crashes and bugs, and they are very open about what they do collect.
Choose Your Add-Ons
Once you’ve got your browser, now you need to make it work for you.
There are thousands of add-ons out there. You only need to install a small handful for security against online tracking and advertising. One of the best things about adding these is that it will also improve your browsing speed significantly; the amount of advertising on a site varies hugely but there’s a lot of it there, often loading before the content you actually want to see.
Strip out the 50% of the page you don’t want and see the difference!
Use an Ad Blocker like AdBlock Plus or Incognito and you might literally get half your screen back! No customizing required, just install it and get on with it. They will tell you how many ads are blocked on each page, which can be quite high. One alone will never get everything, so using a couple will take care of most of them.
Ghostery is another great add-on that specifically blocks trackers. It’s got some customization options if you want them. I just set it to block everything. Trackers are the bits of code that can follow you from one site to another and are used to put the ads (yes, the ones we just blocked) onto the pages you’re looking at based on where you go.
If you’ve blocked all the adverts, then why block the trackers? This is about privacy, so not sending all that data back about what you’re doing online is, well, the point.
Lastly, we use Webroot anti-Virus. When installed, it’s available as an add-on to Firefox and Chrome, and also gets installed in Internet Explorer by default. It adds a nice layer of protection, blocking you from malicious sites. If you use Google search, it gives you a clear traffic light warning against the link indicating its relative safety. If it’s red, it will block you (though you can override it). It also gives the page a security rating.
Change Your Search Engine
Google is great at finding things. But it’s also the single biggest destination for online tracking there is. Every time you search you are giving Google more information about yourself so they can better sell you things.
There are lots of alternative search engines, but none as quite as good as Google. The best is DuckDuckGo – ‘the search engine that doesn’t track you’ – and they do not store or sell your personal information. It has a great rating icon in the top telling you things like whether a site has an encrypted connection, has any trackers, and a rating of its privacy practices.
True, your search results may suffer. But, to be honest, you might notice at first and then you probably won’t. One of the reasons the results might be slightly off the mark is precisely because they are not hoovering up all that metadata and building up an online picture of you.
Have you noticed that the top results from Google are often ads anyway? Google doesn’t necessarily present you with the best results; it presents you with the closest results out of those who are paying to be there.
What Else Can I Do?
As I said earlier, this is by no means the end of the story, but it’s a very simple way you can start to protect yourself online, for free.
The problem with the above is that it’s very much a personalisation of your experience, and very hard to enforce. We provide lots of other solutions, most of then very inexpensive – like web filtering and other network scanning tools, as well as tracker and ad blocking on a network scale with monitoring and all those bells and whistles you would expect.
A few other immediately obvious things you might like to try:
- Don’t use Facebook to log you into websites (Facebook tracks A LOT of data and does follow what you do on the internet even outside of Facebook, especially if you use Facebook to log into sites and then click through links within it).
- Do use a trusted password manager. I asked a web security expert what he thought about using Firefox’s own built-in password manager, and the answer was that it’s fine. Mozilla has a pretty unsullied reputation, and in any case, it’s still better than using either the same password for different sites or writing them down somewhere else. Last Pass is probably the best manager available and very easy to use.
- Do learn how to use Private windows (CTRL+SHIFT+P in Firefox). Anything you do in here is not tracked in your browsing history and form data will not be remembered. This makes it ideal for logging into ANY site on a computer that’s not your own, but especially banking or other sensitive sites.
- Don’t neglect your phone. Your mobile phone is generally going to be a safe place to browse from, but it’s not immune to tracking. It’s perhaps even more susceptible as it’s using your physical location in addition to all the normal trackers. Try the AdBlock Plus or Mozilla Focus browsers, both geared towards blocking the ads and trackers on mobile. Focus runs in automatic private browsing mode.
- Lastly, I would say without a doubt, don’t use speech recognition devices like Alexa, Google Home, Siri etc. They don’t just listen when you call their name; they’re listening all the time. That’s how they hear their name! Don’t connect your home to the Internet Of Things either. I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who were speaking about one thing or another over a pint with their phone on the table and the next day started seeing adverts for those very same items. It’s not spooky, it’s by design.
This is simply my own, personal approach to browsing and my own dislike of having what I do recorded and used for the monetary gain of other people. If you like ads, or don’t care what information the large tech corporations gather on you at every click or conversation, then you probably didn’t read this far anyway. Maybe you did get this far, and you think this is the ramblings of a paranoid anti-Google leftist conspiracy theorist and wanted to see what I would do at the end of it.
I would simply invite you to give these a go and just see what kinds of things are blocked. At a minimum, if nothing else, your browsing speed will improve.
Investigatory Powers Act: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/investigatory-powers-bill#investigatory-powers-bill
Mozilla Firefox: https://www.mozilla.org/en-GB/firefox/new/
AdBlock Plus: https://adblockplus.org/about