There are real threats to your privacy online, especially if you use the internet on a frequent basis. Whenever you browse the web, you leave a digital footprint that helps third parties keep track of what you do online. You are at risk of being tracked by your ISP, who has access to everything you send, websites, three-letter government agencies, digital advertising agencies, attackers, search engines, etc. The United States’ government usage of the PRISM program which allegedly tracks over 1 million internet users in the United States took a lot of Americans by surprise.
Read on to learn about the different ways you are tracked whenever you use the internet. We’re also going to look at a number of sites and browser extensions that you can use to find out exactly who might be tracking you online and how you can maintain your privacy and security whenever you’re surfing the web.
The number one spot on this list is obviously going to be your social media accounts. Social media tracking is perhaps one of the most treasured methods utilized by advertisers and attackers. This is because through social media, we tend to provide a very detailed profile of our user habits, our likes, our hobbies and a lot more. It can be described as a gold mine of hyper-targeted information just waiting to be tapped by third parties, especially advertisers.
When you post a photo online, send a tweet or participate in a discussion on a social network, it is important to keep in mind that you’re sharing a lot more than you might think. Obviously you’re sharing the things that are in your post – photos, videos, your username – but there’s also other data that gets shared.
A post on a social network might also include:
- Your location at the time you submitted the post.
- Links to your social media profile.
- Personal details such as contact info, birthday or gender.
- Links to your friends and people you have connected with.
- What time you submitted the post.
- Identified locations from a photo or video.
Be extremely cautious when using social media. Take a closer look at your social media connections and don’t accepts invites from people you don’t know.
Most search engines have the ability to track every search you perform online. For example, Google attempts to track whaever you do online, such as the sites you visit, who you communicate with and what you might currently be in the market for. When you use Google and its affiliated services, information about you including the keywords you search for is compiled and stored in the form of a user profile. All of this data becomes part of your search history and online profile with Google.
If you are concerned about your privacy being infringed upon in this manner, you can opt to use a private search engine that maintains your privacy and delivers good search results. Note however, that these search engines may not offer the same level of sophistication or search results that Google offers. What they offer however, is privacy.
Here are the best private search engines:
Duck Duck Go is a very popular US-based search engine. According to their terms and conditions, the service never ties saved searches to individual users, although it does use your IP address to serve local search results.
Metager is a German metasearch engine, that provides search results in English, German and Spanish. The service has it’s own web crawlers and indexers, but also gets its results from up to 50 search engines, including Yahoo and Bing.
Qwant is metasearchengie that primarily uses and presents Bing’s search results to users. It is based in France and delivers search results in a variety of languages including English, French and Italian. According to their terms and conditions, this search engine doesn’t track you or your computing device, and promises not to record anything about your search history.
Device fingerprinting is a creepy, privacy-invasive practice that is used to identify and track you online. It works by combining various characteristics of a computing device to identify a computer as a unique device. This includes the device’s IP address, screen resolution, operating system, computer settings, software, web browser preferences, and other similar things. This process is used to create a digital portrait of you. This information is used to pinpoint you and follow you as you browse the web and use apps. Once enough device characteristics are learned, the data can be compiled into a profile that helps identify you in the same way that a fingerprint would.
Digital fingerprinting can provide a more consistent way of tracking people online, and there is not really a way to stop companies from using this technique to track you on the web.
Cookiers are the best-known tools for identifiying and tracking users online. A cookie is a small piece of information that websites place in your browser whenever you navigate to a website. This cookie allows the website to keep track of your visit details and store your preferences.
There are several advantages of using cookies. For example, when you sign in to a particular website, the cookie remembers your login details so that you don’t have to keep typing in the same details when you visit that same site again. This increases the speed with which you visit that same website again. But this is also how companies are able to see what items you are viewing when shopping online, what articles you’re reading, or what you’re researching on any particular day
But cookies can also track your browsing activities across various website. By knowing what pages a user visits, it can tailor the user’s experience for that website.
Third party cookies
What can be really deceitful are third-party cookies. While they can have legitimate uses, third party cookies are often used by advertising networks to track you across multiple websites, even if you are using a VPN to cover your tracks. Most websites use third-party advertising or tracking scripts. If two different websites are using the same advertising or tracking network, they can track and link your browsing history across both sites. However, Chrome give you the option of blocking cookies.
A very special type of cookie is called the super cookie and an example of such is the ‘evercookie’. As the name suggests, this particular cookie is ever present in your computer no matter what you do to try to get rid of it. It is able to achieve this because unlike regular cookies that are stored in one location, the evercookie stores cookie data in several places – for example, in Flash cookies, your browsing history, and HTML5 local storage.
A very clever tracking method the evercookie employs is to assign a unique color value to a few pixels every time a new user visits a website. The different colors are stored in each user’s browser cache and can be loaded back. The color value of the pixels is a unique identifier that identifies the user.
When a website notices that you’ve deleted part of the super cookie, the information is repopulated from the other location. For example, you might clear your browser cookies but not your Flash cookies, so the website will copy the value of the Flash cookie to your browser cookies. Super cookies are very resilient.
DNS leaks can occur when a VPN or a DNS is not configured correctly and when your device gets compromised by hackers. These leaks can breach your privacy by exposing what you do online. The best way to avoid DNS leaks is to use a VPN that provides you with their own DNS addresses.
Now the apps you install on your phone can be used to profile you on social media sites such as Twitter. Also the apps you’ve downloaded may be tracking your location without your knowledge by using your phone’s GPs. This is why it’s important to keep tabs on which apps have access to such sensitive information.
How can I find out who is tracking me online?
Panopticlick analyzes your current browser setup, including add-ons and extensions, to find out just how many trackers are tracing your browser session. To use Panopticlick, hit the giant orange “Test Me” button and wait for the analysis to complete. Depending on your list of add-ons and extensions, you’re going to experience different levels of tracking.
2. Am I Unique?
Am I Unique? is a tracker analyzer with a focus on the unique fingerprint your browser broadcasts. Navigate to the Am I Unique site and click on the View My Browser Fingerprint button. Wait for the analysis to complete, then check your results.
Tools That Make You Harder to Track
1. VPN (Virtual Private Network)
If you use a VPN, your IP address is changed and your online activity is encrypted, so you cannot be tracked. Some internet service providers (ISPs) or websites may be aware that you’re using a VPN, but they will not be able to see or monitor your actual online activity. A VPN minimizes your chances of being tracked online. It does a powerful job of protecting users from things like digital spying, online tracking, data collection, invasive advertising, and cybercriminals.
Disconnect blocks over 2,000 individual trackers from following you around the internet. According to Disconnect, by blocking such a large amount of trackers, websites actually load up 27 percent faster. Disconnect is currently available for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera. Once you install Disconnect, head to a website, and open the extension. The drop-down panel shows you the entire range of trackers currently logging your browser session.
3. Adjust your privacy settings on social media.
Stay in control of your social media by choosing what things you share, and who gets to see them. By managing your privacy settings, you can choose what gets shared, where and with whom. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner provides list of all games, apps and social networks, including necessary information about how you can control your privacy settings and report abuse on each of the services. You can learn more about controlling your Facebook privacy settings from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner Facebook eSafety information page.
4. Use Piriform to delete certain aspects of your digital footprint.
Using this powerful tool will erase all cached data to help you avoid being tracked online.
5. Use an adblocker and a secure browser.
You can increase your privacy by using an ad blocker such as Privacy Badger, along with a privacy-respecting brower. These powerful tools will make a lot harder for advertising agencies and other third parties to track you online.
6. Clear your browser cache.
Every browser you use can be used to track your browsing history. This is why you should make sure that you clear your search engine browsers cache as often as you can.
Here’s how you can clear your browser cache in Chrome
- Open Chrome.
- At the top right, click More .
- Click More tools Clear browsing data.
- At the top, choose a time range. To delete everything, select All time.
- Next to “Cookies and other site data” and “Cached images and files,” check the boxes.
- Click Clear data.
5. Your phone keeps track of everywhere you go, all the time. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are able to opt-out of location-tracking on Android and iOS. You can adjust your location services on your mobile device by disabling GP as tracking.
How to disable GPS tracking on Android:
- Power on your phone and navigate to the home screen.
- Press the “Menu” button on your phone, followed by the “Settings” option that appears.
- Touch “Location & Security” under the “Settings” menu and then uncheck the option that says “Use GPS Satellites.” The GPS on your Android is now blocked.
How to disable location tracking on iPhone
- Open the Settings app.
- Scroll down and tap on Privacy.
- Select Location Services.
- In the next menu, untoggle Location Services at the top.
- Some of the best methods of fighting against super cookies is to avoid running Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight in your browser as these two apps are used by super cookies to replicate themselves. Using VPN services like Tunnel Bear or Tor is perhaps the best way of fighting cookies.