It is not just the annoyance of seeing ads, but social media, search engines, and many other advertising networks and data collection sites track us as we read online news, log in at our favorite sites, watch videos, take surveys, and browse the web. As consumers we need to empower ourselves to develop better practices for making privacy choices when we share and access information on the internet. This involves more than simply relying on our resident anti-virus and anti-spyware.
What can we do? First of all, we can remind ourselves that the best defense is the person sitting in the chair behind the computer. We've heard all that before. What if we are vigilant, are malware-free but are still seeing PPC (pay-per-click) ads, tempting coupon offers, and you-can't-live-without-this product advertising? What about the tracking that we don't see?
In this article, my goal is to discuss how many of the ads and trackers used by websites can be avoided. One way that this can be accomplished is by using browser add-ons such as Adblock Plus, or Adblock Edge. In order for advertising to be acceptable, it must meet criteria set by Adblock Plus. Adblock Edge is similar to Adblock Plus, but is without the acceptable ads feature. Fluff Busting Purity and SocialFixer are great options for those of us who prefer to have some control over Facebook content.
I have tried all these over the years, and have settled on a few that meet my needs. You may want to take a look at them as well as similar products. A search will produce reviews, comparisons, and alternatives. Please keep in mind that you may come across some potentially unwanted applications claiming to block ads. One is mentioned in a removal guide by Malwarebytes. Therefore, while doing that search I suggest having WOT (Web of Trust) installed so that you know which sites are trustworthy. We don’t want the prevention to be worse than the problem that we are trying to avoid.
Some users like to use a hosts file, a form of browser immunization, to block ads, banners, 3rd party cookies, 3rd party page counters, web bugs, and even some hijackers. A hosts file is available for us to install manually. Alternatively, security products such as Spybot Search & Destroy may install a hosts file as one component of their product. Customers would need to decide whether they would have a need for other features included in the all-in-one security products. Understanding a hosts file is another topic, so we'll save that for a future article.
Aside from seeing unwanted advertisements, should we be concerned about tracking and data mining? According to Wikipedia, "The overall goal of the data mining process is to extract information from a data set and transform it into an understandable structure for further use.” Businesses and governments use our information to reveal more than we are aware of.
As far as monitoring tracking, there are several browser add-ons, such as PrivacyFix, Ghostery, and Cocoon that can help. By using a tracker privacy extension we are protected from companies that are compiling data based on browsing history and selling it to the highest bidder. AVG PrivacyFix scans for privacy issues based on our Facebook®, Google®, and LinkedIn® settings. It takes us to the settings that need to be fixed. From there, we can see the pros and cons of each setting, allowing us to make the best decision on how much we are sharing. While PrivacyFix is mainly for social media, Ghostery, allows us to see what we are blocking on all websites. It uses Ghostery’s tracker profiles to educate us about the companies that are tracking us. Ghostery, gives the user options to block tracker by tracker, site-by-site, or block by a mixture of the two. Blocking can be paused or disabled altogether. Ghostery is available for many devices and browsers. Unfortunately, there is no version available for Internet Explorer. Cocoon is in an all-in-one plugin that protects privacy by allowing websites and advertisers to see only Cocoon computers, not your computer. When using it everything done online is secure and private. While reading about Cocoon, if you have children be sure to take a look at CocoonKids. CocoonKids safeguards children’s online privacy and security while providing various tools at a parent’s disposal such as a whitelist that will allow parents to control what websites their children can and cannot visit.
What about "sandboxing"? Sandboxing technology isolates programs to prevent untrusted programs from damaging the rest of the computer. The software that we use is already sandboxing much of the code running every day. Most browsers sandbox themselves to run in a low-permission mode. However, some folks may decide to run an extra layer of protection by installing Sandboxie. When using Sandboxie webpage advertising will still be visible with browsers that normally show them, and the trackers will still be "calling home" during the browser session. However, after the sandboxed browser is closed, trackers will no longer be following it.
Currently, the applications mentioned in this article have free versions. See each vendor's page to note whether your browser is supported. Experiment to see what works the best for you depending on which browser(s) you use regularly.
Sources and Additional Reading
Do Not Track - the privacy standard that's melting away