Beyond “Do Not Track”: Protecting Your Privacy Online

April 4th, 2019

Once, you were considered paranoid if you thought you were being followed wherever you went. Today, most people realize they’re constantly being tracked online. Search for a pair of boots, and suddenly you’ll see ads for boots everywhere you go. Seems kind of intrusive, no? Maybe even rude? You’d think there’d be a way to tell them to stop, wouldn’t you? Well, there is: “Do Not Track” (DNT). Too bad it doesn’t work. Here’s what you need to know – and what you can do instead.

What Do Not Track Is Supposed to Do – and Why It Doesn’t

Over the past 20 years, web advertisers have invented many technical approaches to tracking you: cookies, supercookies, Flash cookies, and system/browser fingerprinting, to name just a few. At first, you could simply delete cookies to hide from the trackers, but those days are long gone.

DNT aimed to put you back in control. To prevent tracking, you’d simply adjust a setting in your browser, which would then send a “don’t track me” message to each site as you arrived there. Most browsers quickly added settings to let you do this. For example, in Google Chrome, you can click More Settings, Advanced, and in the Privacy and Security settings, select “Send a "Do Not Track" request with your browsing traffic.

Once a site received your DNT message, it was expected to turn tracking off. But this was entirely voluntary. Since the interests of advertisers, websites, users, and privacy advocates were radically different, they never agreed about how DNT requests would be treated. These days, many sites now use multiple third-party cross-site tracking systems to collect data about you, even if you send a DNT instruction telling them not to.

If that’s not bad enough, some tracking firms actually use your DNT setting as one more way to identify your unique browser configuration, so they can more confidently identify you and target advertising based on your interests.

New Browser Tools and Extensions That Work Better

Some browser developers have recently decided that DNT may even be counterproductive: users think they’re getting protection, but they aren’t. In its Safari browser for Mac and iOS devices, Apple has replaced DNT support with “Intelligent Tracking Prevention,” which limits third-party tracking when it appears to be coming from sources other than sites you’ve deliberately chosen to visit.

Starting with Version 65, Firefox has also begun to restrict third-party trackers. By default, it permits no tracking when you open a private window, but you can prevent tracking in all windows. To do so, click Menu, click Content Blocking, and choose Strict. If a page fails to load properly as a result, you can choose to make an exception. To do so, click the Shield icon that appears to the left of the web address in the Address Bar, then choose Turn Off Blocking for This Site.

Several third-party tools can also help restrict cross-site tracking. One is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s free Privacy Badger for Google Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. It recognizes third-party domains that embed trackers on your device, and if it sees the same host tracking you on multiple sites, it automatically disallows their content. If it “knows” you need third-party content – for example, an embedded map on a news article – it allows the connection but limits its ability to track you.

For years, DuckDuckGo’s private browser has helped to hide users from those trying to identify them. DuckDuckGo now also offers an app and extension that strengthens the privacy safeguards of other browsers such as Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. It also displays a Privacy Grade for each site you visit based on what DuckDuckGo can determine about who’s tracking you there.

A Word from the Advertising Industry

We should mention the U.S. digital advertising industry’s own programs for providing some modicum of consumer control: AdChoices and WebChoices. (Similar programs exist in Canada and the EU, including the U.K.)

With AdChoices, if you see an ad you don’t want, you can turn it off, and you can instruct participating third-party networks not to send you advertising based on your interests. According to the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), participating networks should then stop collecting data about you for the purposes of customizing advertising, but they might still collect data for other purposes. There are other limits to the program’s scope and effectiveness, so even if you use the DAA’s tools, you might also want to use some of the other tools we’ve discussed.

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to object to being tracked, and many websites depend on personalized advertising to survive. But the choice should belong to you. The techniques in this article can help you take it back.

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