From the moment you connect your laptop or phone to the internet, you have to make peace with the fact that somebody’s tracking you. If this is upsetting, you should know you’ve got a growing number of options for finding out who is following your every move on the internet, and why.
Shining a light on this is a great reminder of the privacy and security implications of going online, which in turn will help you make better decisions regarding how exposed you want to be.
What are trackers and why are they after us?
A few trackers might relate to social media networks or analytics platforms—sites use them to learn more about their visitors. But most of these pieces of code relate to advertising networks, collecting information about your browsing habits and serving you ads that might be relevant to you based on this data.
This kind of tracker is what causes the exact pair of shoes you were looking at to appear alongside an article you’re reading, whether you went shoe shopping six months or a moment before. These are the ones we should be most careful about, says Jeremy Tillman, president at Ghostery, a tool for identifying online trackers.
“To put it bluntly, these trackers are stealing your data in order to sell it back to you later, in the form of products and services,” he says.
Trackers can also have a significantly negative impact on page loading times, as sites that have a lot of them give your browser a heavier workload.
How to track trackers
One of the tools to identify and stop trackers is the aforementioned Ghostery, a free extension that plugs into browsers such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera. With one click on its icon you can see how many trackers are embedded on the website you’re visiting and where they originate from. Ghostery will block most of these trackers by default, but if there are any the extension didn’t stop, you can do it yourself with a click.
Privacy Badger is another option—an extension from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that also works on Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Opera. As with Ghostery, a click on the Privacy Badger icon reveals the trackers on a site, together with the option to block them. The extension will also notify you of more aggressive trackers that follow you across multiple sites, and block them automatically.
But whichever extension you use, you might struggle to make sense of the list of tracking companies you’re seeing, especially who they actually are and what they are collecting. In addition to big tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon (often listed as Amazon Associates), and Google, you’ll see less-familiar names such as Criteo, New Relic, Akamai, and Quantcast.
Tools such as Ghostery give you some information about these companies, such as their names and a brief description of what they do. You can also learn more via web search, but don’t expect to find a lot out there—these companies are trying their best to stay out of the spotlight as they collect and sell your data.
“A significant portion of the tracker ecosystem is comprised of more obscure, middlemen ad tech companies, and tracking them down can be next to impossible,” says Tillman. “This means your data is reaching companies and corners of the internet that you’ll likely never know about.”
Another tool that can illuminate some of this murky world is a platform called Blacklight, built by tech-focused nonprofit media organization The Markup. Input a website URL into the scan box and you’ll see a comprehensive list of all the trackers installed on it—from ones serving up targeted ads to the ones building up a profile on you.
If you use Safari on macOS, a similar functionality comes built right in. Click on the shield icon to the left of the address bar to see how many trackers are active on the page you’re on, then click Trackers on This Web Page for a full list. Safari blocks these trackers by default, and can even report on the worst offenders. If you want more details, just click the info button in the top right corner of the pop-up dialogue.
“What’s most important, whether you recognize these companies or not, is that you’re blocking their tracking attempts and keeping your data in your hands,” says Tillman.
Further help to stop trackers
Switching to more privacy-conscious apps and services can help, too. To that end, it’s better to browse using Safari instead of Chrome, and search the web via DuckDuckGo instead of Google.