Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not watching. The modern web is built on tracking, in ways that often feel invisible.
But the way this tracking works is usually simple – and even avoidable. Today Cool Websites and Tools looks at a few browser extensions and websites that show you how tracking works while giving you the ability to take some power back. Let’s start with something simple: email.
PixelBlock (Chrome): Stop Email Tracking
Email marketers, and even some of your friends, know whether or not you’ve read their emails. But this isn’t because email itself supports this feature: tracking in this context is somewhat of a hack. Typically a small white image, with a unique URL, is embedded into the message itself. Open an email with images enabled and, unbeknownst to you, your email client loads up the image from a remote server – informing trackers that you’ve opened the email. You can stop this sort of tracking by disabling images, but there are less blunt workarounds out there.
PixelBlock is a Chrome extension for Gmail users that attempts to block these images from loading, and as such stops services from tracking whether you opened an email. Simple, right?
Oh, and if you’re just now learning about email tracking and think it sounds useful, here’s how to track your emails
DirectLinks (Safari): Copy Real Links Directly From Google or Facebook
Have you ever tried copying a URL directly from Google search results? Instead of the URL you want, you end up with “https://www.google.com/” followed by a bunch of gibberish. Like this:
This is a redirect link, and it’s how Google tracks which URLs you end up clicking after searching for something. When you click the link, it opens the random string seen in the URL first, which tracks your decisions before re-directing you to the site you were looking for. Such URLs are a simple and common way for websites to track your activity: Facebook does the same thing.
DirectLinks is a simple Safari plugin that removes redirects, preventing Google and Facebook from tracking your clicks while also giving you a faster way to copy URLs from those services. Google Redirects Fixer offers something similar to Firefox users, but only for Google (not Facebook).
Blender (Firefox): Make Your Browser Look Generic [No Longer Available]
If you’re a Mac user, you’re probably used to seeing Mac-specific ads; how does that work? Well, you’re broadcasting all sorts of information about your computer to the web, just by browsing. Head to MyBrowserInfo.com to get an idea of just how much information you’re sending out.
Anyway, if you’re worried about this information, you can “blend in” by installing Blender. This simple extension makes you appear more “generic” by changing your browser agent user string. For example: my computer appears to be Windows-based after installing.
It also shows a more up-to-date version of Firefox (I should probably update, huh?). Anyway: this is just one more way you can obscure your tracks online, so check it out.
Good Guy Apps: Subreddit Pointing Out Privacy-Friendly Android Apps
Most free mobile apps are monetized some other way: often with ads, frequently with some kind of tracking. Google Guy Apps is a small subreddit dedicated to highlighting apps that don’t track.
It’s a relatively small community at present, but it’s a good enough idea that I thought to include it here. Here’s how to find the best obscure subreddits, in case you’re wondering where I got this.
PrivacyPal (Web): Privacy Policies, Summerized
I could spend all sorts of time teaching you about privacy, but it also pays to be informed about what companies’ policies are. But you probably didn’t read the terms of service for all the sites you use, so you’ve no idea what they will or won’t do with your data.
Privacy Pal can help, by summarizing what sites do with the information you provide them. There’s a wide variation out there, but this simple system gives you an idea. A similar site is Terms of Service Didn’t Read, which you should also check out.
What Other Privacy Lesson Are Out There?
Understanding how online tracking works helps you make decisions, which is important. Most people have a sense that they’re being tracked online, but aren’t sure how – the above sites and services help demystify a bit.
There are similar sites out there. Privacy Badger blocks all sorts of trackers, for example, and you can stop Facebook and other social networks from tracking your web activity as well.
But I want to know your favorite tips. Let’s chat in the comments below, okay?