Tracking users is a major part of the modern Web. For better or worse, it’s become part of the online social contract that we’ve all entered into unwittingly: users get services for free, and companies get user data in exchange. Google, Facebook, Amazon and others have invested heavily in tracking technologies, following you with ads and sharing your online behavior. For some people, this is a non-event; for others, it’s n gross intrusion. Fortunately, if you want to stop dropping digital breadcrumbs everywhere you go, there are a few tools you can add to Firefox to reclaim some of your privacy.
Disconnect is a Firefox add-on that helps you stop websites from tracking you online. By restricting advertising and analytics services that can track you online, Disconnect makes staying private a little easier. Disconnect is not an ad blocker, though it does block the tracking elements of online ads. That can often end up removing the ad as well, so you’ll probably see an increase in your browsing speed, too.
Once you install the add-on and restart Firefox, Disconnect goes to work right away, with no need for any configuration. On each site you visit you’ll see a small green box with a number appear over the extension’s logo.
This shows you how many trackers that Disconnect has blocked, if any. You can click the extension’s icon to see a more complete menu which separates trackers into categories like Advertising, Analytics and Content. You can individually enable or disable certain trackers and whitelist sites that you want to let through.
Disconnect doesn’t block everything, and in fact, it tries to take a balanced approach to avoid breaking websites. It might allow some critical trackers through to keep the website you’re visiting functional. If it does, you’ll find those under the “Content” category within the extension. That category is unblocked by default, but you can override that setting by clicking the category’s icon or check the tick boxes next to each item to block at an individual level.
Another browser extension, Ghostery, works similarly to Disconnect, but at a more granular level. Whereas Disconnect is ready to go immediately, Ghostery requires a little more setup. On first launch you’ll be given a list of all the trackers that Ghostery can block. For new users your best bet is to click “Block All” and go on your way.
If you have the background and desire, you can get more specific and select individual trackers to block and unblock, or toggle predefined categories like Advertising, Social Media and Analytics.
Like Disconnect, Ghostery will also show a running count of detected trackers in the toolbar. Clicking on the icon in the toolbar reveals a pane showing which trackers were detected and which were blocked. You can manipulate individual trackers on a per-page basis here, so you have an extremely fine level of control.
In tests and reviews it seems like Ghostery has a greater tendency to break websites. It’s a bit less discriminating than Disconnect since it will block whatever you tell it to block, whether or not that keeps a page from loading.
Fortunately, you can easily toggle the extension on and off. Click the extension icon, then click Trust Site to whitelist the domain you’re currently visiting. Click the pop-up balloon to reload the page, and all should be back to normal.
There’s also a “Restrict Site” option which functions like a blacklist. This is handy when you’ve set up Ghostery to allow some trackers through but want to completely lock out certain domains. When you click Restrict Site, Ghostery blocks all trackers on that page, no matter what your other tracking rules say.
Both of these extensions get the job done but in different ways. If you’re looking to reclaim a little privacy without a lot of work, Disconnect is an excellent option. If you like tweaking knobs and customizing, try Ghostery.