How much information about your browsing behavior do websites have access to? Here’s how websites track your movements and what you can do about it.
Many internet users are becoming increasingly concerned about their privacy, particularly the implications of our surfing behavior being tracked. Despite this, it appears that many people are still uninformed of the dangers linked with certain behaviors. They also have no idea how to mitigate the risks.
So, how do websites keep track of their users? And, more importantly, how can you legally prevent your online activities from being tracked?
Cookies are a method of storing user preferences for websites on a computer’s hard drive. Setting your chosen time zone, for example, will result in a cookie being created in your browser with that setting. It’s a simple way to manage user preferences that doesn’t require any server-side accounts.
Or, at the very least, that was the initial plan. Cookies are frequently used for more malicious objectives, most commonly marketing.
In recent years, this has caused a lot of alarm among industry experts. It’s the reason why every website now asks you to confirm your cookie selections in an obnoxious popup. Regulators decided that allowing users more choice over how their cookies are used was a good solution to the problem.
In actuality, malicious site operators just focused on utilizing ambiguous wording to dupe users into accepting cookies when they thought they were doing the exact opposite.
Fingerprinting of Browsers
This is only the top of the iceberg. At this time, cookies are a thing of the past, and site owners have moved on to more complex and precise methods.
Fingerprinting is currently the most popular method, and it’s frightening how powerful it is while simultaneously being nearly impossible to block.
It’s predicated on the notion that each computer arrangement is distinct in some sense. And a lot of that information is made available to the websites you visit directly, usually for compatibility reasons. Here are some examples of data pieces that could be used to create your profile:
- Browser and its version
- Operating system
- IP address
- Installed fonts
- Versions of specific plugins, like Java (though these are being deprecated at least)
None of those, including your IP address, are unique identifiers on their own. However, when you combine them, the overall profile will be one-of-a-million unique, if not more—more than enough for site owners to figure out who you are.
For sites to function properly, your browser must grant them access to these data points. A website, for example, could want to check the list of installed fonts to see which ones it can and cannot utilize. You can disable some of these functions, but this will only get you so far.
Even if you try to block it, there are some quite powerful techniques that can be used to extract information about you.
Alternatively, the site might run algorithms with known complexity and measure their performance in an attempt to find out your hardware configuration.
Does Incognito Mode Prevent Websites From Tracking You?
Some people consider Incognito mode to be a “safe zone” in which they can do whatever they want without being tracked. When you open a new private tab in a modern browser, it even brags about the measures it is taking to combat tracking.
However, when all of the aforementioned is taken into account, that is basically meaningless.
All you’re doing is concealing your logged-in account’s identity. Even if tracking cookies can’t be saved beyond this session, they’ll still work. Fingerprinting ensures that your actions are traced.
How Can You Prevent Websites From Tracking You?
That isn’t to suggest that there isn’t still hope. There are still some things you can do to reduce the negative effects of this data collecting.
One of those points has already been mentioned. Take a closer look at the pop-up the next time you’re asked to accept or reject cookies before clicking “reject.”
Some websites will try to persuade you to accept cookies when you appear to be doing the exact opposite. Masking the reject button as “reject recommended” or something like is a common practice. Alternatively, the site may prompt you to select your preferred cookies from a list. They’re hoping that the majority of users won’t bother.
In recent years, VPNs and similar services have been touted as a solution to the problem, although their effectiveness is varied. VPNs do not block cookies, but they do hide your IP address. They’re a valuable addition to your security armory, but they’re not infallible.
It also depends a lot on the VPN service you choose. For instance, you have no idea where your connection is going or who is listening in. Even if your connection is encrypted, there is still the possibility of obtaining relevant information about you.
They are, nonetheless, preferable than nothing. However, you’ll have to go the extra mile to properly minimize tracking.
Examine your browser extensions and plugins to see which ones you truly use and require. The more fingerprinting profiles you have installed, the more unique your fingerprinting profile will be. Instead of sticking on the same version for a long period, make sure to maintain them up to current.
Is This the Future of Internet Browsing?
This is something you’ll have to get used to, for better or worse. Companies are keen on tracking your activity across several sites, and this isn’t going away anytime soon.
But there’s a lot more we can do to improve our response to this. It’s more crucial than ever to take a close look at your browsing habits and make changes when necessary.