After a never-ending erosion of online privacy via companies tracking everything users do online, the trend seems to be reversing direction and users are being given the tools they need to take back some control over how their online activities are tracked.
If you hate searching for a product on one site and then seeing ads for that product on every other site you visit, you are not alone. A few leading technology companies have learned that protecting their customers is good for business, and help is on the way. Web browsers like Safari, Firefox, and Brave are now blocking this type of tracking by default.
Companies that profit by harvesting user’s online profiles are upset about these changes, claiming it’s “bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love.” These companies are also upset at the rapid rise of Ad Blockers in web browsers. On several websites I operate, over 50% of users are visiting the website with browsers that use Ad Blockers.
Two ways companies are giving control of privacy back to users is through blocking cross-site tracking, and fighting browser fingerprinting.
What Is Cross-Site Tracking?
Cross-site tracking refers to companies collecting a user’s browsing data across multiple websites. When you browse from site to site, you’re often followed by tracking mechanisms that collect data on what websites you have visited, what pages you visited, what searches you performed, etc.
What Is Browser Fingerprinting?
Browser Fingerprinting is an incredibly accurate method of identifying unique browsers and tracking their online activity even when cookies are disabled. Browser Fingerprinting works by building a unique “signature” of your device based on identification points like IP Adress, Web Browser, Screen Resolution, Plugins enabled, etc. This type of fingerprinting works even if you clear your cookies.
Behind the scene, the companies that are tracking your online activity are building in-depth profiles of who you are, and what your interests are… including some very private information. On the surface this may seem benign or beneficial to users. However, Facebook’s repeated privacy scandals have revealed how companies can exploit this user information.
How Users Can Take Back Some Control?
Apple has taken a leadership position in protecting user privacy. Apple has implemented new features in Safari called “Intelligent Tracking Prevention”.
Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention works to prevent cross-site tracking. Safari will prevent tracking mechanisms from companies like Facebook, Google, and advertising networks from loading on websites until you explicitly click them. If you want to use Facebook features on a website, you’ll get a prompt asking if you want Facebook.com to access your cookies and website data. If you don’t allow that access, Facebook won’t be able to track your browsing activities online, even if you’re signed into Facebook while browsing.
Safari’s new restrictions will make it much more difficult for websites to uniquely identify you using Browser Fingerprinting.
Starting with version 65 of Firefox blocking Cross-Site Tracking and Browser Fingerprinting is enabled by default.
And of course there is my favorite web browser Brave. Brave is an open source web browser that blocks advertisements, tracking pixels, and tracking cookies by default.
It is good that a cross-platform browsers like Firefox and Brave implement these features, because it is unlikely that Google Chrome is going to do anything that potentially hurts ad revenue any time soon. However, even Google Chrome has the ability to send a “Do Not Track” request if you go into its Advanced Privacy & Security Settings and you can install ad-blocking plugins for Google Chrome.
While Duck Duck Go’s Traffic Growth (an online search alternative that respects a users right to privacy) probably doesn’t concern Google much at this point, if they start losing web browser market share they may be forced to address user’s concerns over the data they are collecting and how they are using it.