How to increase your privacy online
In light of the recent Facebook scandals, we’ve become increasingly aware of how much data we leave behind online. Some of our data gets there because we hand it over to websites willingly, but a lot of it doesn’t happen that way. We leave involuntary trails behind us as we browse the web, and websites and ad networks use this information to build profiles of what we like to target ads to us.
Sometimes that’s helpful, but a lot of it comes off as creepy, unwanted, and intrusive.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to browse the web a bit more privately to avoid being tracked. Here are some of the steps you can take, from some basic settings changes to extensions you can install that’ll wipe out even more.
What isn’t private: private browsing mode
You might be familiar with your browser’s private browsing mode. They all have them — Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge — but there are some key limitations here you should be aware of.
This mode is useful: it essentially starts up a fresh identity for you to browse the web with, then wipes it all as soon as you close the window. That’s great for short and discreet browsing sessions, like if you need to buy a present for someone on a shared computer.
But it’s not great for long-term use. You probably do want some degree of web tracking: for instance, you want Facebook to remember that you’re logged in every time you visit the site, even if you don’t want Facebook to know what other sites you’re visiting. Private browsing doesn’t let you do that. And it doesn’t actually block the things that let advertisers follow you around.
Change your browser’s settings
A really simple first step is to just tell your browser not to accept cookies from third parties.
Cookies are small chunks of data that websites store on your computer. They can be used for helpful things, like keeping you logged in, but they can also be used to track you, by logging the sites that, say, a specific ad unit pops up on.
By telling your browser not to accept third-party cookies, it’ll stop allowing many domains that you aren’t actually visiting — like the advertiser on the site you’re reading — from adding to or checking in on your cookies. This isn’t going to end all tracking, but it should mean less of it and fewer personalized ads. More importantly, it’s a simple first step that unlikely to break anything and should make the web a bit more private without changing your browsing experience all that much.
To change this on...
- Chrome: go to Settings, advanced, content settings, cookies, and then turn on “block third-party cookies.”
- Edge: go to Settings, view advanced settings, cookies, and then use the drop-down to select “block only third-party cookies.”
- Firefox: go to Preferences, Privacy & Security, then under the History section, switch “accept third-party cookies” to “never.”
- Safari: Apple actually activates this setting by default. To check that it’s enabled, go to Preferences, then Privacy, and look for “prevent cross-site tracking.”
Block even more using a browser extension
The options above are helpful, but they don’t block everything. Plenty of unnecessary trackers still make it through. Fortunately, you can install browser extensions to take care of those.
There are a ton of options here. Some are better than others, and some block more than others. You can go with something as simple as a cookie blocker to something as thorough as a full-on ad blocker.
For the video above (and because, frankly, I’m employed by a website that makes money off of ads), I focused on one of the less thorough options: the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger.
Privacy Badger is a neat option because it doesn’t rely on someone else’s list of trackers and cookies to block. Instead, the extension learns which trackers are misbehaving as you browse the web. If it sees something pop up on two unrelated websites, the extension realizes it’s acting inappropriately and may move to block it.
Ad- and tracking-blockers should work perfectly fine in most circumstances. But it’s worth noting that if you’re using one that wipes out too much of a page, it’s possible you’ll encounter situations where a website appears slightly broken. Usually, you’ll just have the option to disable the extension on just that page, allowing it to work again.
Privacy Badger works on Chrome, Firefox, and Opera. If you’re on Safari or Edge, I’d recommend Ghostery, which is very transparent and informative about what it’s blocking on each site. (Ghostery is available on those other browsers as well.)
You can do this on your phone, too
We usually talk about targeted ads on the desktop, but all the same rules apply on your phone. Depending on what phone you have, you have different options for dealing with it.
On iOS, Safari allows you to install extensions that can block ad trackers (and a lot more). Popular options include 1Blocker and Clearly. You can also install third-party, privacy-focused browsers, like this one from Ghostery.
On Android, you’ll have to download a separate browser. There are a lot of options here, but one of the bigger names is Firefox Focus, which blocks trackers and includes a button to quickly wipe all your data. It’s also available on iOS.
Check your settings on Facebook, Google, and so on
It’s also worth taking advantage of the options given to you. Facebook, Google, and other large web advertising companies often give you options to opt out of some of their tracking and personalization. It may not always be everything, but it’s something.
Facebook, for instance, allows you to turn off ad personalization by going to its ads setting site. It doesn’t appear that turning these options off fully stops Facebook from following you around, but it does prevent the company from using the data in certain ways. Google also lets you turn off ad personalization by going to this site. And there are also a ton of less-visible ad tracking networks that let you opt-out of some amount of tracked by going here.
Taking all these steps won’t necessarily tackle every issue of privacy online. Some of it is unavoidable on the modern web — though Apple has recently been fighting back — and other parts can only be avoided by jumping through much bigger hoops, like routing your traffic through other computers. But these are some critical and fairly easy first steps you can take that ought to make the web feel a little less creepy.