Ad-blocking and no-track software and plugins have a wealth of benefits. Not only can they keep sites from knowing more about you than you’d like—they also make pages load faster, keep you from being distracted by ads, and can even help protect your computer from getting malware.
Here’s some steps to take to stop being tracked by ads and other third parties as you navigate the web. You don’t have to take all of them—even a few will limit the amount you’re being tracked.
Not all web browsers are created equal. Some have more privacy and security protections built in than others. If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer to access the web, you should strongly consider changing for security reasons. And if you’re using Chrome and don’t want to be tracked, you should also strongly consider changing your browser, or at least your settings. Chrome is made by Google, and loves sharing your data with Google’s ad network. Firefox
If you’d like privacy built in from the beginning, Firefox has a version of its browser which defaults to not ever tracking you or identifying you across sites: Firefox Focus. Here’s where to find it for Android or iPhone.
For extra-super-strength private browsing, check out the options in the article on protecting yourself from governments and the police (like Tor).
A couple of browsers make it possible to turn on additional protection against ads and tracking. They don’t necessarily turn this on by default. (Thanks, guys.)
To turn down the tracking in your Google accounts (including Chrome, Gmail, the Play store, and your Android phone), you want to “pause” Web and App activity in your Google account and turn off personalized ads. While you’re there, consider “pausing” your location history and YouTube history. Also, stop Google from using you as an ad for products and services by sharing your endorsements (aka ratings) with others.
Firefox has a lot of tracking protection turned on by default. (Take that, mega-corporations!) But you can adjust your Firefox privacy settings here (that link only works in Firefox).
There are add-ons which will give you protection above and beyond your browser’s privacy settings. Here’s a few:
AdBlock Plus has also been around for a while, and is available for a number of browsers, as well as offering ad-free browsers for Android and iPhone. Unfortunately, it has a drawback: the company that makes it allows some advertisers to pay to get around their blocks. You can still turn them off, but it takes more effort. However, AdBlock may be a better choice if you find Privacy Badger or uBlock are keeping you from seeing things you want to.
Many times when you get email from a company (or sometimes even your friends), it loads a picture. When it loads that picture, it sends information back to the company sending that email—and that information could include your email address and cookies from your web browser. Sometimes the picture is so small you can’t even see it—it could be a single pixel, which might show up as a tiny white dot smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
One way to stop them from getting this information on you is telling your email site or app not to load images automatically. Outlook is set up to do this without asking. You can also tell Gmail, Yahoo, and Apple Mail not to load remote content (look for “load remote content in messages” in that Apple Mail link).
Also: avoid clicking links in your email whenever possible. That also sends information back to the company. This is good advice for avoiding someone actively trying to steal your information, too (aka phishing—not the same as companies passively gathering information from you). For example, when I get an email from my bank, I open and read it, but if there’s additional actions I need to take, I log in to my bank from the usual address in my web browser and look around the page to see where I can do what they asked me to do.
Private browsing mode basically gives your browser amnesia: next time you log in, your browser will not remember what you did. It’s great when you’re visiting sites you don’t want someone else to find out about if they use your browser, as well as stopping trackers.
How does private browsing work? Check out this article from Martin Shelton for more information.
And remember, private browsing, like every other privacy tool, is not a magical invisibility cloak. It very definitely does not hide your name when you post on your accounts, so don’t use it to log in to Facebook and serve tea about your boss.
If you’re worried about ads you’ve been getting because you think your phone or digital assistant like Alexa, Cortana, or Siri is listening to you, check out this article.
If you’ve done all of the above, you’re not going to see many ads anymore. But you can also send a request to some companies who track you to tell them not to customize ads for you. Here’s how to do that with AdChoices and Outbrain.
If you’re still saying to yourself “but I really don’t mind ads or tracking,” keep in mind that even within the industry there’s disagreement over whether the current state of ads and targeting is healthy. And the list of tracking’s “greatest hits” is pretty scary. It’s your call, but I think we could all use a little ad reduction in our lives.
For more background on why and how ads track us, and how to protect your privacy, pick up a copy of Keep Calm and Log On.