File Under: privacy

Secure Your Browser: Add-Ons to Stop Web Tracking

Ever wonder who’s tracking your online movements — watching the sites you visit, the links you click and the items you buy? Unless you’ve already taken active steps to stop the tracking, the answer is just about everyone.

Privacy advocates have been working to help raise awareness of the extent to which we are all tracked online. Browser makers like Mozilla have also been working to make consumers aware of what’s happening behind the scenes on the web. Mozilla created and popularized the Do Not Track header, which has now been adopted by all the major browsers. Firefox’s parent company also recently showed off its Collusion add-on as part of the TED 2012 conference.

Collusion is a Firefox add-on that helps you see exactly who is tracking your movements online. It doesn’t stop sites from tracking you, but after Collusion shows you what happens when you browse the web without any tracking protection, you’ll probably want to find something that can stop sites from tracking you.

Not all web tracking is bad. Some services rely on user data to function. For example, if you use Facebook and want to use the company’s ubiquitous Like buttons, Facebook needs to set cookies and keep track of who you are. The problem Mozilla wants to address with Collusion is the fact that most tracking happens without users’ knowledge or consent.

The screenshot below shows the number of websites Collusion found tracking me after I visited the top five most tracker-filled websites according to Privacy Score, namely The Drudge Report, El Paso Times, ReadWriteWeb, TwitPic and Merriam Webster. As a result of visiting just those five sites, according to Collusion, a total of 21 sites were made aware of my visit.

Collusion visualizes who's tracking your web browsing.

That sounds bad, and it is, but it may not even be the full picture. For comparison’s sake I loaded the same five sites and used the Do Not Track Plus add-on, which counted 47 sites with tracking bugs. Want another number? I repeated the test using the Ghostery add-on, which blocked 37 unique sites looking to track me. The variation in number of tracking elements detected is due to several factors, including what each system considers tracking. (Collusion for example, does not seem to count analytics or social buttons, while the others do.)

Even at the low end the numbers remain startling. Visiting five websites means somewhere between 21 and 47 other websites learn about your visit to those five.

If the extent of tracking bothers you there are some steps you can take to stop the tracking. The first would be to head to your browser preferences and turn off third-party cookies. Unfortunately, while that’s a step in the right direction (and you won’t lose any functionality the way you might with the rest of these solutions), some less scrupulous advertisers, including Google, have been caught circumventing this measure.

For a more complete solution you’ll need to use an add-on like Ghostery or Do Not Track Plus, both of which are available for most web browsers. The chief drawback to both of these solutions is that you may lose some functionality. To stick with the Facebook example used earlier, if Ghostery is blocking Facebook scripts then you won’t be able to use Like buttons. Fortunately both Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus allow you to customize which sites are blocked. I recommend blocking everything and then when you encounter something that isn’t working, click the Do Not Track Plus icon and edit the blocking options to allow, for example, Facebook so that Like buttons work (or Disqus so that comments work, etc.). That way you remain protected from the vast majority of invisible tracking, but can still enjoy the web services you choose to trust.

One final note about Webmonkey.com: There are 11 external scripts on this page. Four of them are for the social network buttons at the bottom of most posts. A fifth is for the Disqus comments system. There are also two analytics scripts, one from Google and one from Omniture. In addition to those seven functional scripts there are four ad network scripts from Brightcove, DoubleClick, Omniture and Lotame. (I can’t actually tell for sure what Lotame does, but it definitely collects data.) If you install the add-ons above Webmonkey will not be able to track you. If you don’t, it, like the rest of the web, will.