Navigating the Web: Understanding Trackers and Protecting Your Digital Identity


Published on Jul 28, 2023   —   5 min read

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The internet is a vast, interconnected network, and every time you visit a website, your browser sends out a signal, or a "request," to that site. But what you might not realize is that there's a lot happening behind the scenes. Invisible trackers and advertising codes embedded in the site can trigger your browser to send out numerous additional requests to hidden third parties. Each of these requests carries pieces of information about you and your browser, such as your time zone, browser settings, and the versions of software you have installed.

Some of this information is necessary for you to view the page correctly. For instance, HTTP headers, which broadcast your device and browser version, are essential for most web functionalities. However, third-party ad networks often exploit these requests to extract additional information. These networks have sophisticated tracking mechanisms spread across the internet, collecting data about your online behavior.

At first glance, the data collected by these third-party trackers might seem trivial and disconnected. But when pieced together, they paint a detailed picture of your online activity, revealing everything from your political leanings to your education level and income bracket. As long as this data can be linked back to you, your online activity can be logged. To maintain this link, ad networks primarily use two methods: cookie tracking and browser fingerprinting.

Cookies and Digital Fingerprints: What's the Difference?

Cookies are small pieces of information that websites store in your browser. They serve various purposes, such as remembering your account login details or the items in your online shopping cart. However, they can also be misused to link all your visits, searches, and other activities on a site together, violating your privacy. Fortunately, most browsers allow you to block, limit, or delete cookies.

On the other hand, a digital fingerprint is a list of unique characteristics related to a single user, their browser, and their hardware setup. This includes necessary information for accessing websites, as well as seemingly insignificant data collected by tracking scripts, such as screen resolution and installed fonts. Tracking sites can piece together these small bits of data to form a unique picture, or "fingerprint," of your device.

To understand the difference between cookies and digital fingerprints, consider the tracking devices used by scientists to monitor animal migration patterns or a GPS transmitter attached to a car. As long as they're attached to the target, they provide accurate and effective tracking. But if they're knocked off or discarded, they lose all value. This is similar to how cookies work: they track users until the user deletes them.

On the other hand, fingerprinting uses more permanent identifiers, like hardware specifications and browser settings. This is akin to tracking a bird by its song or feather markings, or a car by its license plate, make, model, and color. These metrics are harder to change and impossible to delete.

Can You Protect Yourself?

Completely blocking trackers is challenging, even with a comprehensive tracker blocker. However, using tracking protections can still make a significant difference. There are two main dynamics that make trackers hard to entirely avoid online:

  1. Impact on Usability: Enhanced privacy often comes at the expense of functionality. For instance, disabling JavaScript can stop tracking scripts from running, but it can also make it difficult to shop, fill out forms, watch videos, or see interactive web elements. Many pages require disabling your ad blocker to see content, or refuse to load anything unless you use the “official” app.
  2. Identifiable Protections: Sometimes, your protections themselves can become part of your fingerprint. An add-on intended to protect you can even lead to your full identification. Changing your settings and installing protections can lead trackers to be identified. In this case, you become a “mystery user with a very specific combination of privacy protections installed.”

The most realistic protection currently available is the Tor Browser, which has put a lot of effort into reducing browser fingerprintability. For day-to-day use, the best options are to run tools like Privacy Badger or Disconnect that will block some (but unfortunately not all) of the domains that try to perform fingerprinting, and/or to use a tool like NoScript(for Firefox), which greatly reduces the amount of data available to fingerprinters.

The primary goal of privacy protection tools like Cover Your Tracks is to help you find your own balance between privacy and convenience. By providing a summary of your overall protection and a list of characteristics that make up your digital fingerprint, you can see exactly how your browser appears to trackers, and how implementing different protection methods changes this visibility.

Simple Suggestions for Protecting Your Privacy

  1. Using a Tracker Blocker: Install a tracker blocker to improve your browsing experience. Most tracker blockers cross-reference massive lists of tracking scripts and block any attempts to load an ad or other item that matches.
  2. Disabling Javascript: Most trackers run on JavaScript, and they can’t gather much of the information used to determine your browser fingerprint without it. Disabling JavaScript makes your browser look a lot less distinct, but it can also break many websites and limit their functionality.
  3. Changing Browser Settings from Defaults: All of the major browsers (Chrome, Firefox, and Safari) come with settings that disable certain types of tracking. Disabling tracking scripts in your browser settings is reliably effective, though not as robust as a designated tracker-blocker.
  4. Using a Fingerprint Resistant Browser: Some newer browsers, such as Tor Browser and Brave, were built to thwart fingerprinting. They work by making your fingerprint less unique and/or less consistent, making it harder for trackers to follow your web usage.

Remember, striving to get the most common result for any individual metric may seem like a good idea, but it can actually make your browser more identifiable. This is why it's not recommended to try to change a single element of your fingerprint.

The Role of Incognito Mode

Historically, Private Browsing and Incognito Mode were intended to prevent traces of sites you visited from being stored on your machine. However, they were not designed to prevent remote sites or trackers from identifying and storing when you visit a site on their servers.

If you are using Firefox, using Private Browsing will provide some protections against trackers. However, this will not prevent a new fingerprinter or tracker from identifying your browser and keeping tabs on it. To get this extra level of protection, your browser needs to have a fingerprint which is either so common that a tracker can't tell you apart from the crowd (as in Tor Browser), or randomized so that a tracker can't tell it's you from one moment to the next (as in Brave browser). Google's Chrome browser does not provide protection against trackers or fingerprinters in Incognito Mode.

Conclusion: Balancing Privacy and Convenience in the Digital Age

In the vast world of the internet, maintaining privacy can seem like an uphill battle. With every website visit, we unknowingly share pieces of information that, when pieced together, create a unique digital fingerprint. This fingerprint can be used by third-party trackers to monitor our online behavior, often without our explicit consent.

However, understanding the mechanisms of online tracking is the first step towards protecting our digital identities. From cookies to digital fingerprints, these tracking methods are pervasive but not invincible. By employing privacy tools like tracker blockers, changing browser settings, and using fingerprint-resistant browsers, we can significantly reduce our digital footprint.

Yet, it's essential to remember that perfect privacy protection is challenging to achieve without compromising on functionality. The key lies in finding a balance that suits your individual needs and comfort level. Whether that means disabling JavaScript, changing your browser settings, or using a privacy-focused browser like Tor or Brave, the choice is yours.

To help you understand how well your current browser protects your privacy, you can use the Cover Your Tracks tool. This tool tests your browser and provides a summary of your overall protection and a list of characteristics that make up your digital fingerprint.

Remember, privacy protection doesn't have to be perfect to make a big difference. Every step we take towards safeguarding our online activity is a step towards a more private and secure digital experience.

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