We all know that Facebook and other companies collect data about us. But that's the tip of the iceberg. Web trackers, on everything from shopping sites to social networks, follow your online activities every time you dip a digital toe into the internet. These advertisers and other parties suck up data about our habits—and then sell it.
The pervasiveness of this behavior can make protecting your privacy seem like an impossible task. However, help is at hand: A number of browser extensions will warn you about web trackers, stop them from following you around the internet, and generally give you control over your data. We picked five of the best add-ons for fighting web trackers.
1. Facebook Container Extension
Facebook isn't the only site guilty of losing user data, but it's certainly the biggest player in the social networking space—and it's very keen to monitor your movements. Even when you're not on the Facebook site itself, web plug-ins such as the ubiquitous Like button can keep tabs on your activity.
To solve this problem, Firefox developer Mozilla has released the Facebook Container Extension, designed to...well, contain Facebook so it can't follow you around other websites. Your personal identity on Facebook, which you use to like photos or share articles, gets locked within a virtual container that's separate from the rest of your web activity. This prevents the social network from seeing what you do on other sites.
On the negative side, this means that Facebook tools outside of the site, such as embedded comments on an article or the ability to log in with your account, may not work properly. However, that's a small price to pay for keeping Facebook's tendrils out the rest of your web browsing. The only other downside is that this extension only works with Firefox.
Facebook Container Extension for Firefox only
2. Privacy Badger
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a non-profit dedicated to promoting user privacy. As part of that goal, they developed an extension called Privacy Badger, designed to block those tracking technologies that work across multiple sites. This prevents marketers from building up a comprehensive profile of your web habits.
Many advertising tracking technologies will recognize you on a bunch of unaffiliated sites. For example, the stuff you search for on Amazon not only shows up in your Amazon recommendations, but also makes its way into ads on Facebook and Twitter. Privacy Badger stops that from happening by letting you limit how much pages can track you. For every site you visit, Privacy Badger identifies any tracking tools and sorts them with a traffic-light system that indicates how intrusive each one is. Then it automatically disables or limits them individually.
Unfortunately, stopping certain trackers can break the functionality of a website—for instance, the ability to play videos might rely on the presence of a tracker. In that case, you can opt to override Privacy Badger's controls. Despite the advanced blocking it performs, Privacy Badger is very simple to use. It's also free, and you can find versions for most popular browsers.
Ghostery is similar to Privacy Badger, but offers more control over what gets blocked—which also makes it more complex to use. If you're willing to take some time to configure it, Ghostery will serve you well. If you'd prefer a quick and clean option, you should probably go with Privacy Badger.
In addition to blocking the ad trackers that monitor your movements across multiple sites, Ghostery can also deal with the code that handles site analytics, user interactions, social media plug-ins, audio and video players, commenting systems, and more. Basically, it will shut down any of the thousands of potentially annoying extras that load on top of websites—if you want it to. When you visit a site, click on the Ghostery icon in your browser to get a clean, clear look at what's been blocked and what hasn't. From here, you can opt to enable code on sites you trust, block everything that seems suspicious, or pause the blocking function temporarily.
These abilities make Ghostery hard to beat for comprehensiveness. Again like Privacy Badger, it's free and available for most browsers.
According to its introductory blurb, Disconnect helps you "say no to mass collection of your online activity and trackers that destroy your device performance." Like Privacy Badger and Ghostery, it sniffs out tracking technologies in the websites you visit and makes sure they can't watch what you're doing.
You can block or unblock these nuisances with a great deal of granular control. For example, you could stop Facebook from watching your movements, but allow Twitter to collect this information. When you visit a site, click your browser's Disconnect button to see what's being blocked and how it's impacting the site speed. The same view allows you to whitelist certain sites and trackers.
Although this extension has our least favorite interface, it's undeniably effective, tackling social plug-ins, web analytics code, and ad trackers. It's free for computers, but if you want to use it on a mobile browser as well, you'll need to pay a one-time fee of $25.
You may know DuckDuckGo as an anti-Google search engine, which doesn't track or record your queries. The same people also offer a browser extension, Privacy Essentials, that stops advertisers and social networks from following you across the web. Of all the extensions on this list, it's the easiest to use: You don't need to spend time configuring it, because DuckDuckGo will make the tracker-blocking choices for you.
One of the extension's nice features is a privacy rating for every site you visit, so you can see who's playing fair when it comes to data collection. In addition, it will automatically direct you to the encrypted (HTTPS) version of a website, which makes it harder for hackers to intercept the data passing between you and the site. This will improve the safety and security of your online browsing.
In addition to your computer, DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials can work with the web browser on your phone. So it will extend data protection to your Android or iOS device—for free.