Settings and Extensions We Think Are Protecting Our Privacy But Aren’t

On the Internet marketers battle for your private information, prying it loose from your Facebook “likes,” web-surfing habits and online purchases. To defend against this problem, web browsers have introduced a number of tricks designed to block information tracking, including privacy settings and extensions. But, do they work? Unfortunately, in many cases they only create a false sense of security.

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To gather data about your Internet habits, websites employ “cookies,” special files that your browser stores on your computer. The files contain snippets of information such as your email address, name, and the last date you visited a website. Though originally intended to make the Web more useful, cookies now play an important role in data harvesting. Modern browsers let you block cookies completely or partially. However, web tracking companies now use other techniques in addition to cookies, limiting the effectiveness of cookie blocking.

Your browser’s settings let you delete cookies, whether from one site or all sites. Although this temporarily disrupts website tracking, subsequent visits to websites will re-create the cookies on your computer. Deleting cookies piecemeal can also lead to erratic website behavior, as many sites depend on the cookies to function properly.

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The “Do Not Track” standard, developed around 2009 by internet privacy specialists, proposed to make web tracking an option you could turn off in your browser settings. Although most browsers have the “Do Not Track” option, its effectiveness depends on the websites you browse. Do Not Track was set up as a voluntary program, so each site can honor it or not. This means a site can track your web habits regardless of the Do Not Track setting in your browser. For the sites you use often, check the Privacy Policy for details on “Do Not Track.”

The Web of Trust extension has been offered as a plug-in browser upgrade which provides information on the reputation of the sites you visit. However, software researchers discovered that the extension itself gathered data on its users. When the issue surfaced, browser developers such as Chrome, Opera and Mozilla immediately pulled it from their own extension download sites.

Adobe Flash is an established standard for animated graphics and video on the Web. Adobe developed “cookies” for Flash, which are similar to but separate from standard web cookies; a browser’s cookie settings do not block Flash cookies. Because they store data but are different from regular cookies, Flash cookies are another tool used to track your personal data. Flash blocking extensions are popular because they block many annoying ads on the web. However, a Flash blocker might not block Flash cookies. Check the extension’s user guide to see if it handles Flash cookies.

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Most web browsers have a “private browsing” option that disables cookies, browsing history and other features, making your Internet session more private. Private web browsing leaves fewer traces on the computer or mobile device. Although the browser itself doesn’t keep a record of private browsing use, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) still has this information. ISPs keep records of the internet addresses of their customers and the sites they interacted with. They will know when you visited a particular site, although they might not have the contents of every page you visited. However, since private browsing blocks cookies, it does reduce unwanted web tracking.

Though private browsing and simple cookie blocking don’t do much for your privacy online, a newer crop of extensions, including Privacy Badger, Ghostery and Adblock Plus (or uBlock) bring added sophistication to web browsing. They intelligently manage cookie activity, blocking some and permitting others, and lower your odds of being tracked.

The built-in privacy controls on most browsers is simplistic; marketing pros have found ways around them. Don’t rely just on Do Not Track or simple cookie settings to keep your personal data private. Be careful of the information you give out, read the privacy policy of the sites you visit, and check out privacy manager software.

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