How to stop companies from tracking you online

On April 24, President Joe Biden signed a bill that could see TikTok banned in the United States if it does not spin off its U.S. operations to an American company . One reason for this: data privacy. Like any social media app, TikTok collects large amounts of data and personal information, and as a Chinese-owned company, there are concerns it could be forced to provide this data to the Chinese government.

“I don’t have a TikTok account,” you might be thinking. "I'm fine." But the modern internet is more complicated than that. Through ads and transactions, data brokers are able to hide cookies, scripts, and "tracking pixels" on completely unrelated websites and even emails, which they can then use to find your purchase history and other valuable data. Perpetrators include not only TikTok, but Meta is probably the most well-known, even going so far as to disclose how it steals your data .

This means that even if you have never used services like TikTok and Facebook, you may be vulnerable to tracking by these services. Fortunately, there are tools to find out when you're being followed and who is.

How does the company track me?

Currently, there are two main methods of online data tracking: the first is cookies, which are about to become obsolete, but pixel trackers are a bit more complicated.

You may have heard the term cookie before. These small packets of information allow websites to store data such as passwords so you don't have to log in every time you visit the site. But in addition to these "necessary" cookies, there are third-party cookies that track your browsing sessions and this information can later be sold to data companies.

These are probably the most obvious ways you can be tracked online. If you have recently visited a website operating in the European Union (or some states), you may have noticed a form asking you to consent to the use of cookies. That's what these forms talk about, and while clicking them may be a momentary annoyance, they've gone a long way toward making cookies less sneaky and easier to block.

Add to that Google's oft-delayed but still planned attempt to eliminate cookies altogether , and data brokers have had to get smarter.

Enter the tracking pixel. They work similarly to cookies, but use images instead of text. Essentially, companies can hide transparent or otherwise invisible pixels on your screen and receive a ping notification when your browser loads them, allowing them to track which parts of the website you are visiting and when. .

It's really a question of the letter versus the spirit of the law, and while the principles remain the same, there's little legislation around tracking pixels, meaning users who have become accustomed to the government's crackdown on cookies must now go back to square one. Be alert to data. Today, some website elements are even bundled with their own scripts that go further than cookies.

How do I know when I'm being followed?

There's a benefit to tracking pixels and scripts integrated directly with your website code: with enough effort, you can tell when you're being watched.

When tracking pixels are loaded into a website, you can actually see their tags in the website's code. If you know what you're looking for, just right-click and select "Inspect" from the drop-down menu to start your investigation. This works in Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge, although Safari requires a little more work .

But generally speaking, you don't want to do this manually. There are tools that can automate this process for you and provide context for what you are looking at.

The latest and greatest is Feroot PageScanner, a free Chrome extension developed by some of the people who have testified before Congress on TikTok.

Feroot PageScanner probably has the most straightforward interface that notifies you when your data is being tracked. While it won't do anything to block trackers, it will place notifications on your screen in real time telling you when your data is being tracked and by whom. Its menu also gives you a detailed list of activity trackers, who runs them, and their purpose. Plus, you'll be able to sort any scripts running on the web page you're visiting without having to go into the Inspect menu.

It is intended for enterprise customers running security analytics on their sites, especially those looking to meet PCI compliance . But it's a good starting point for anyone, as it provides an in-depth (albeit somewhat scary) look at the scope of the problem.

“TikTok is not the biggest problem so far,” said Feroot CEO Ivan Tsarynny, who has previously testified before Congress about TikTok.

How to block online trackers

Once you understand the scope of the problem, there are a variety of tools that can help you take control of your online privacy.

Ghostery works similarly to PageScanner, but it can go a step further and actually limit trackers. In contrast, its information isn't as in-depth as PageScanner's, so while it will tell you where trackers are coming from and what they are used for, you won't get those pop-up notifications or be able to sort the scripts. Tsarynny said Ghostery also conflicts with PageScanner, so it's best to use it to counter threats after they're identified.

Ghostery is available as an extension for most browsers or as a standalone browser with built-in functionality. It also runs a privacy-focused search engine that is also available as a browser extension or its own website.

If you don't want to install anything, you can also visit Ghostery's website to see which trackers are active where.

Although Ghostery is open source, it has been accused of selling user data in the past as well as using its own data . A representative who spoke to me via email said that Ghostery has been working to repair its reputation since the 2017 acquisition and currently "relies entirely on users." Donate/Contribute" operation.

uBlock Origin is another open source ad blocker, and while it's more difficult to understand and use than Ghostery, it's undoubtedly the most powerful of your options. It can block almost any element on any website with laser precision, and while it comes with built-in blocklists, you can also create and import your own. The downside is that it gives you less information about how and when it's being tracked than PageScanner or Ghostery, since it just prints out blocked tags and ads and hopes you know how to parse them. It is available as an extension on Chromium and Firefox browsers.

Privacy Badger has similar functionality and interface to uBlock Origin, but focuses more on trackers rather than ads. Also open source, its interface offers no details on how it tracks you, and there's no ad blocking here unless ads are tracking you. What Privacy Badger does is learn to block trackers over time. You have two options here. First, Privacy Badger's developers continually test tags and scripts for intrusive techniques and regularly update the extension to block new trackers. Second, local learning is disabled by default. Local learning allows Privacy Badger to learn about your own browsing habits, and while it can make it easier for trackers to identify you, it can be useful if you frequently visit unwanted websites. Privacy Badger is available on Chromium and Firefox browsers. Local learning can be turned on and off through the Options page.

Finally, in addition to extensions and websites that block tracking, there are VPNs. A VPN essentially hides your IP and therefore your browsing data by filtering it through other sources. The best VPNs are paid services, but some will encrypt your data for free. Don’t trust every free VPN you come across, but names like Proton Pass and Tunnelbear , while not as strong, have just as good a reputation as the big players.

Please note that tracking pixels can also appear in emails. To protect yourself from these, follow our guide on how to prevent email images from loading by default.