Protecting Online Privacy – Part 2: Tracking and Ads

In our previous post we covered the benefits of using a commercial VPN service to protect your online privacy. If you didn’t get a chance to check it out, you can find it here. Today’s post will address threats to our online privacy that come from within the web pages we’re accessing.

Tracking Cookies & Advertisers

Advertisers don’t want to try to show you ads for products you don’t want, because they’ll lose clients if they’re wasting time trying to, for example, sell tractors to a New York City waitress. So the best way they have to try to market effectively is to try their best to track our habits across the internet.

One of the primary tools they use in this pursuit is tracking cookies. Tracking cookies are like any other cookies. Small bits of data websites can save on a computer and can access later. When large advertiser networks span multiple websites, they can use tracking cookies to identify us as we visit different websites in their advertising network.

This applies not only to advertisers, but also companies like Facebook, who can track views and clicks on a “Like Button” placed on a 3rd party site.

One of the simplest things we can do to protect ourselves from tracking cookies is to disable 3rd party cookies. This simply means cookies that are set by a website different from the one that’s in your address bar. Cnet has a great article about how to block 3rd party cookies across all major browsers available here.

Adblockers and Script Blockers

Simply blocking 3rd party cookies is not enough to fully protect us online, but thankfully we have much more powerful tools. Quite possibly the best thing we can do to protect ourselves, not only from tracking, but also from malware, is to run an ad blocker in our browsers.

Ad blockers actively check pages for invasive or dangerous content before they’re loaded and remove any potentially nefarious code or elements. It’s important to be discerning when selecting an ad-blocker, as several have decided to make money by allowing advertisers to pay to get past them.

At the time of the writing of this post, we recommend uBlock Origin (not to be confused with just uBlock), as the project’s author strongly believes in protecting users online privacy and has shown no signs of selling out to advertising companies. It is a free extension that comes configured and subscribed to “filterlists” which are automatically updated as advertisers and trackers change their tactics.

For the truly paranoid (like yours truly) there are even more aggressive extensions, like NoScript, which by default blocks all javascript on a per-domain basis until specifically overridden either permanently, or temporarily for a single session.

We wouldn’t recommend such a tool for the casual internet user, as disabling javascript will break most webpages and the tedium of whitelisting websites one-by-one can disrupt the browsing experience, but if you’re shining your tinfoil hat while reading this, it’s worth checking out.