Opting out of Browser Tracking

Recently, a friend described how creeped out he was when his laptop broke and he started sharing a computer with his wife; he started seeing ads about women’s clothing and she started seeing ads about stereo systems. He hadn’t realized just how targeted the advertising on the web really is.

If you want to get scared about your current privacy settings, go to the Panopticlick website run by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online privacy organization. If you automatically log in to Google from the Google Chrome browser, you are definitely identified uniquely and can be tracked at a level far more detailed than anything the NSA can widely (or perhaps legally) do.

The article that follows is aimed at some ways to get somewhat better privacy on the web, opt out of some tracking, and to at least suppress some of the ads that you see in your browser. This article is far from a secure/anonymous browsing discussion; this is just a discussion of settings to reduce the commercial ad tracking and displays that are creepy and annoying. If you are interested in secure/anonymous browsing, you will need to do a lot more, but recognize that according to some of the Snowden revelations, reading about this will get you on an NSA watch list as described in NSA: Linux Journal is an "extremist forum" and its readers get flagged for extra surveillance.

The sections that follow describe how to avoid some of the commercial tracking that is common on the Internet.

Step 1: Use Multiple Browsers

For sites where I have to log in like Gmail, Facebook and other social media sites, I use Chrome with settings that allow these sites to work. For everything else, I use Firefox, so that Google, Facebook and other social media sites don’t have access to the history and browsing information on the other sites that I visit.

Step 2: Opting out of Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the easiest analytics engine when it comes to opting out. All you need to do is go to Google Analytics Opt-out Browser Add-on and install the browser add-on that Google has written to opt out. There is a version of the add-on for all of the major browsers.

Step 3: Installing a Tracking Blocker

Google Analytics is not the only tracking software that web sites use; for everything else you will need one or more additional tracking blocker add-ons for your browser. For everything else, you will need a generic blocking add-on. I have been happy with Blur (Formerly DoNotTrackMe) from Abine. There are certainly others, but this one has been supported for several years. I have not used any of the premium features and cannot give an evaluation of the premium features. I don’t use the password saver or email blocker at this point either.

How to prevent Google from tracking you lists some other tracking blockers that appear to be quite useful.

Step 4: Installing an Ad Blocker

Next, you will want to install an ad blocker to get rid of some of the annoying ad displays. I’ve used Adblock Plus for several years. By default it allows ads that are not truly annoying, as many web sites are supported by ad revenue, but it does block the ads that are truly annoying and allows you to configure what is displayed.

Step 5: Use a Non-tracking Search Engine

Most search engines (including Google and Bing) give you a unique ID and track all of your searches through that ID. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that purports not to track your searches. It is generally pretty good, and for some queries I get more useful search results than from Google and Bing, though this largely depends upon the topic of the search.

Figure 1. Default Search Engine Settings in Firefox
Figure 1.  Default Search Engine Settings in Firefox

Step 6: Tighten up Privacy Settings in Firefox

In your browser settings, there are several things that you can do to improve privacy. Most current browsers have a setting that tells web sites that you do not want to be tracked; whether the site honors this is voluntary, so you cannot depend upon it.

Most browsers have a private mode that deletes any history of your session when you leave the browser, preventing sites from interrogating the history of sites that you have visited. It is less convenient in some ways–you have to explicitly bookmark pages that you want to come back to rather than searching through history, but I have come to use this mode by default. If you use this for a while, you will learn just how much the search engines tailor searches based upon the history that your browser stores.

You should also disable third-party cookies. This setting used to stop almost all tracking, and will stop some tracking by advertising firms, Google Analytics and other vendors now use site-issued cookies to allow tracking in browsers where third-party cookies are disabled.

Figure 2. Changing Privacy Settings in Firefox
Figure 2.  Changing Privacy Settings in Firefox

Step 7: Tighten up Privacy Settings in Chrome

If you use Google Chrome as your browser, there are some other privacy settings that you may wish to learn; Chrome has several privacy defaults that give away a lot of information that you may not want to give away. The first is whether you are logged in to Chrome and/or Google. If you are logged in, all of your activities can be tracked with absolute precision and detail. Even if you are not logged in, using the various web services for resolving navigation errors and for predictive search terms sends information on your browsing directly to Google. Depending upon how concerned you are, you may wish to disable these web services, as shown in the instructions below. How to Optimize Google Chrome for Maximum Privacy has a good description of all of the options.

To get to the Google Chrome Privacy Settings, open up Settings, and then go to the bottom, and click on the tiny print for “Advanced Settings” as shown in the figure below.

Figure 3. Selecting Advanced Settings to Access Privacy Settings in Google Chrome
Figure 3.  Selecting Advanced Settings to Access Privacy Settings in Google Chrome

In the Advanced Settings, uncheck the boxes that you want to disable as shown in the next figure.

Figure 4. Privacy Settings in Google Chrome
Figure 4.  Privacy Settings in Google Chrome

Tightening up on cookies in Chrome requires clicking on the “Content” button under Privacy Settings. Here, you will make similar preference changes, but note that the wording for the settings is sometimes backwards from the wording for similar settings in Firefox–in Firefox, you uncheck a box to block/disable third party cookies, but in Chrome you check a box to block/disable third-party cookies.

Figure 5. Changing Cookie Settings in Google Chrome
Figure 5.  Changing Cookie Settings in Google Chrome

Step 8: Disable JavaScript

If you are really interested in browser privacy and security, you should disable JavaScript in the settings for your browser, but recognize that many sites will not work properly when JavaScript is disabled. On this site, the following features require JavaScript:

Step 9: Change Your Google Account Settings

Within Google, you will probably want to be aware of the information that is collected, and some of the settings that can alter this. Go to to look at some of the information that is collected. You may wish to opt-out of interest-based ads under the “Ads” section of the settings.