Six Ways Websites ID and Track You – and How You can Fight Back!

by Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre ; Updated October 17, 2017

Have you noticed that after shopping for shoes online, you see ads for similar shoes on seemingly every site you visit? It’s not a coincidence. You are being watched by Internet marketers. They make it their business to know everything about you to serve advertising targeted to your interests.

Here are six of their strategies:

1. They leak your data.
Whenever you make a purchase, create an online account or give your name and email address to a website, you’re accepting a mountain of fine print – and probably volunteering to be tracked, too. What you do when logged into that account also gets logged and tied to your identity.

2. They “review” your email and instant messages.
Check the terms of many free services and you’ll find the services scan your messages for keywords. This gives them a goldmine of private data, in addition to your sign up information. Check out the fine print in Yahoo’s privacy policy as an example: https://info.yahoo.com/privacy/us/yahoo/mail/ymailfaq/

3. They know you wear your location on your sleeve.
Your computer transmits an Internet Protocol address that tells websites where to deliver content. Since IP addresses are assigned by geography, marketers use them to get a general sense of your location. That’s why you may see ads for “Hot babes in [your town name] waiting to meet YOU!”

Marketers milk your tracking cookies.

4. They milk your cookies.
Cookies are bits of code that let websites keep track of you over time. Some cookies are necessary, for example, to remember what’s in your shopping cart when you shop online. But many websites place tracking cookies in your browser just to monitor your movements across the Internet.

5. They “dust” for fingerprints.
Computer browsers are as unique as the people using them. Different time settings, add ons and privacy preferences create fingerprints that are useful in profiling and tracking you. This ghacks article explains how: http://www.ghacks.net/2013/10/11/least-1-top-10000-websites-use-fingerprinting-track-users/

6. They insert other stealthy trackers.
Web beacons, pixel trackers and flash cookies are just a few of the other creative tricks marketers have dreamed up to stealthily track consumers.

Solutions

Fortunately, you can give Internet trackers the slip to reduce your online tracking footprint. Here’s how:

• Seek out privacy-friendly alternatives.
A small but growing number of websites promise not to log your visits or track you. (Yes, they really do exist — Katherine helped create one. See: www.StartPage.com)

• Manage cookies.
Set your browser privacy options to reject third-party cookies, block marketing cookies and delete cookies each time you close your browser. These directions explain how to do this in most browsers:

Firefox: https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/products/firefox/privacy-and-security/cookies
Google Chrome: https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/95647?hl=en&ref_topic=3421433
Internet Explorer: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/internet-explorer/delete-manage-cookies#ie=ie-11 Safari: http://support.apple.com/kb/PH17191

• Use your browser’s privacy options.
If you must visit sites known to track visitors, keep them at bay with the “Do Not Track” setting. (Unfortunately, some sites don’t honor the setting.)

• Visit websites using a proxy.
A proxy fetches information for you so you remain anonymous. Watch Katherine’s short YouTube video on the free StartPage proxy.

Ghostery Interface

• Use Ghostery to block trackers, like web beacons. New-fangled trackers are stealthy, but Ghostery (www.ghostery.com) helps level the playing field. It shows who’s trying to track you and lets you squash those nasty buggers.

Wondering whether you should bother protecting yourself from online tracking? Stay tuned for our next column, where we’ll tell you why online privacy matters — a lot!

Photo credit: Digitalista/Bigstock.com, Ghostery.com