Have you ever thought about something and a related ad appearing later when you are browsing online? This is because you are being tracked.
Internet tracking is a common practice intended to improve your online experience. Also, advertisers use tracking data to target you with related products and services. Unfortunately, cybercriminals can get hold of the data and use it to access your personal accounts or infect your device with malware.
In this article, we will look at how internet tracking works, how to safeguard your information online, and much more.
What is internet tracking, and how does it work?
Basically, digital or web tracking is monitoring your behaviour on the internet. It is not illegal, and apparently, more than 79% of websites do it. However, malicious actors can use trackers to collect your personal information, including IP address, geographic location, login credentials, banking data, etc.
There are three main ways websites can track your online behaviour: cookies, beacons, and fingerprinting. Also, they will identify you with your IP address, login credentials, and devices unique identify and compile the information in a data profile.
These are small images, usually 1×1 pixel on websites, to track your online activities. Websites use them to monitor users’ interaction with web pages, while advertisers use them to monitor their ads’ impressions.
Most beacons are harmless, but some are used negatively. For example, a hacker can send thousands of emails containing beacons to test the waters. The beacon will activate if the email is opened, notifying the fraudsters that the email is active. They exploit this vulnerability by sending more email spam.
Fingerprinting is a more sophisticated tracking method. Instead of storing files in your browser or computer, it checks your browser settings and configuration. The problem is that fingerprinting techniques are becoming more complex and advanced. Hackers can also identify you using your operating system, browser version, and monitor size and resolution.
Websites that track your online activities
Internet tracking is rampant, and most websites are doing it. Websites with the biggest tracking infrastructure are social media sites and popular search engines. Below are some of the most widespread online trackers.
Web traffic (%)
|Google Tag Manager
|Google User Content
Note that more than half of the top twenty online trackers are from Google. In fact, it comprises over 90% of the total web traffic.
Is online tracking illegal?
No law prohibits online tracking in most countries worldwide, but websites must disclose their data collection policies. In addition, while some websites anonymize tracking data, others don’t at all.
Another problem is that third parties often share the user data, making you lose control of your private data completely. Also, excessive tracking gives advertisers more power to influence customers’ purchasing behaviour.
Is tracking necessary?
Sadly, too many websites have normalized collecting online data. In fact, most companies rely on the data to operate, while others believe that the data will come in handy someday. For example, Facebook and Google use the data to charge for the advertisements on their platforms.
How to avoid online tracking?
It is almost impossible to avoid online tracking altogether. However, you can employ the following tips to safeguard your private information on the internet.
1. Clear your browser history
I recommend you clear your browsing history frequently to protect your data from falling into the wrong hands. Cookies will track you through your IP address for every website you visit. This means that you will leave a tangible trail of your internet activities.
Unfortunately, these cookies are saved in your system, which records everything you do online. That is why you will automatically access a site you had previously visited even if you didn’t save the login credentials.
So, what type of data do the trackers collect? Usually, they want to monitor your online activities from the articles you are reading, what you are buying, the information you are researching, etc. They will also try to engage you with your likes and dislikes.
However, clearing your browsing history will blind the trackers. In addition, you can deactivate the cookies and privatize your viewing patterns. Both options are available on most browsers. The problem with disabling cookies is that you will have to enter your username and password every time you visit a site.
2. Read privacy policies carefully
I can bet that you don’t read privacy policies. This is understandable as most privacy policies are extensive and confusing, with tons of legalese that are difficult to comprehend. In fact, more than 90% of consumers accept private policies without reading them.
Thankfully, some regions are compelling companies to be more transparent with their data collection practices. For example, the European Union enforced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
3. Use search engines without trackers
Currently, Google is the biggest search engine with more than 3.5 billion searches every day. However, it also collects your information. This includes what you’re searching for, the images, links, and videos you click, the amount of time you spend on sites, your purchases, etc.
The second largest search engine is Bing, although it does not collect data extensively as Google. It mostly tracks activities on Microsoft accounts (which people rarely use).
- DuckDuckGo – It does not log any information and lacks a way to identify unique users.
- Bitclave – It is based on the Ethereum blockchain and uses decentralized technology to improve user security.
- StartPage – Does not track, record, or store any personal information.
4. Use a VPN
A virtual private network (VPN) is perhaps the best defence against online privacy-related issues. It will encrypt your data and tunnel your traffic through a secure protocol to anonymize your browsing experience. This means that websites, hackers, government agencies, or your ISP will not track your information.
Unlike other tips on this list, a VPN serves a bigger purpose. Some VPNs have apps for routers, which will protect your entire network, regardless of the device you use to access the internet.
Also, redirecting your information to a server in a different location will trick the internet that you are somewhere else. For example, you can be in the UK and connect to a server in the US. This will show that you are in America, enabling you to bypass geo-restrictions and access blocked content. Just ensure you use a service that is outside the 14 Eye Alliance.
5. Use tracker blockers
Trackers run as scripts when you visit a website. They are invisible but collect your information, including your browsing behaviour and IP address. Thankfully, you can download tracker blockers as browser extensions to prevent trackers from collecting your data. They also stop cookies or fingerprinting from tracking your browsing activities.
Moreover, the tracker blockers will prevent ads from loading on the websites you visit. Usually, these advertisements contain tracking scripts that advertisers use to gauge their ad’s effectiveness.
Will enabling ‘Do no track’ stop online tracking?
Many browsers have a ‘Do not track’ setting that prevents the websites you visit from recording your data. While this can protect you from some websites, it is ineffective to stop tracking. There isn’t a law that prohibits websites from tracking your browsing so they will do it anyway, even when you enable ‘do not track settings.
Tracking filter bubble
The data that big search engines collect by tracking your searches are used to personalize your search results and serve ads. Most search engines have an algorithm that filters your results by considering your past browsing history and past ad clicks. So, even if the search results seem relevant, they are specifically tailored to your online behaviour. This is known as a ‘filter bubble’.
Firefox and Apple browsers add tracking protection
Mozilla and Apple have started integrating their browsers with tracking protection to curb its prevalence. Giving users the ability to prevent online tracking helps to reduce tracking companies’ already overreaching power.
Essentially, the entire internet sustains itself with tracking and ad revenue. Although many companies on the internet benefit from this practice, it is not user-friendly. However, minimizing tracking will make the internet friendlier to the end-user. Currently, there is a likelihood that you are sharing your information with other third parties when you visit a single website. Fortunately, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browsers will minimize tracking with the new anti-tracking protection.
There is no single way you can completely protect yourself from online tracking. That is why I have compiled a cocktail of multiple solutions that you can combine to have the safest possible online experience.