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How to block Internet ad tracking and maintain your online privacy

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by Staff Writer

hacker looking at data screen

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Virtually everything you do online can be tracked, and online businesses are collecting large amounts of data about each of us. This data is used to primarily to sell you things. It is used to send you personalized, targeted marketing messages as you surf the Web.

However, online tracking also raises troubling privacy concerns: we usually don’t have access to the data these companies collect about us, nor do we know how they use it. And while most online tracking is harmless, it can be used to facilitate identity theft and other cybercrime. In fact, identity theft has been the #1 FTC complaint every year since 1999.

In this article, we’ll explain common-sense steps you can take to limit online ad tracking.

Cookies and online privacy: how Internet ad tracking works

For each advertisement that appears online, a machine records the precise moment you click, roll over, or scroll past it. This ad-tracking practice has its roots in age-old market research methodologies designed to determine the effectiveness of advertising, but it is much more fine-grained online.

Most Internet ad tracking is accomplished by way of third-party cookies: small files stored in your Web browser that identify you and record information about your online behavior. Cookies can come from online advertisements, embedded graphics, or directly from the sites you visit.

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It’s important to note that cookies are not inherently good or bad. Without cookies, most popular websites, including Amazon, Facebook, eBay, and others, are rendered nearly inaccessible. Your cookies store important configuration information that allows these services to provide you with a personalized experience.

Other cookies, however, are primarily designed to assist advertisers. They relay information to online data collectors, such as Google’s DoubleClick, which then develop performance metrics and profiles of your online behavior for advertising purposes.

Blocking Internet ad tracking: first steps

Given the nature of the modern Web, it’s not very practical to completely disable all cookies. It would also be highly time consuming to try to block just the advertising cookies by manually disabling them. However, there are more sophisticated approaches that can protect you from the vast majority of ad tracking.

Webmail tracking opt out

Owing in part to increased scrutiny over online behavioral ad tracking by the Federal Trade Commission and other government entities, both Google and Yahoo! have added special “Opt Out” buttons and comprehensive privacy management functions to all user email accounts.

To activate these options:

  • Log into your Yahoo! or Gmail account. Go to either the Yahoo! Ad Interest Manager or Google’s Privacy Center.
  • The Opt Out buttons are on the first configuration page for each site, along with a number of advanced options that let you decide which types of ads you would like to see, if any. Simply choose the settings you prefer.

For more detailed information, see the help pages prepared by Google and Yahoo.

Facebook tracking opt out

Facebook uses cookies to track your actions across the Internet and provide a customized ad experience on its social network. To opt out, visit the Digital Advertising Alliance’s opt-out service and select the Facebook option. You can also opt out of other ad-tracking services on the same page.

Ad block plugins

There are a number of free plugins for Chrome, Firefox, and other popular browsers that block online ads and prevent companies from collecting your data. AdBlock Plus is one of the most used, but you can find other options as well by searching Google for “ad blocker reviews” or similar.

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Adjust browser settings

Many browsers have built-in settings that prevent certain types of cookies from being installed. For the purposes of stopping Internet ad tracking, you will want to block “third-party cookies.” These are cookies loaded from a website other than the one you are visiting. For example, if you visit Amazon.com, you would only want cookies from Amazon being loaded. CNet has a good step-by-step article on how to block third-party cookies in all the major browsers.

The evolving online tracking ecosystem

Unfortunately, online ad tracking is a bit of an arms race, with companies ever trying to find ways around the tracking defenses consumers have set up. One example of such developments is so-called “perma-cookies,” which are tracking cookies that cannot be deleted or blocked through normal means.

In response to these trends, there have been calls for greater oversight of online tracking, including a proposal for a federal “do not track” list, similar to the popular do-not-call list. If implemented, this idea would go a long way toward protecting your privacy online. In the meantime, however, the best way to prevent Internet ad tracking and protect your privacy is to follow the suggestions above.

You should also remove as much publicly available personal data as possible from the Web. The less comprehensive the profiles advertisers make about you, the less likely someone will be able to use that information against you. ReputationDefender offers a suite of advanced privacy protection services that make it harder for companies and individuals to find your information online. To learn more, with no obligation, check out our ExecutivePrivacy product page.