Monday, 9 September 2013

Don't Let the Bastards Track You Down

In a recent post I discussed the rather scary experience of realizing just how much the Internet knows about me through no fault of my own. That post dealt with how my personal information was found to be given away by others. However, fact of the matter is that whenever I or anyone else surf the Internet, we're bleeding personal information left and right without even knowing about it.
Behind the scenes, companies collect all sorts of stuff about you through [almost] every website you visit. With some notable exceptions like Wikipedia or DuckDuckGo, goddess bless them, the vast majority of websites out there send information about you to third parties that collect and cross reference your information. And we do bleed information at every site: they can tell what our IP address is, thus potentially identifying us; they can tell what PC and browser we use, often to great detail; and they can tell where we are located, often with GPS like accuracy. And if you happen to be logged in to a service, such as Google or Facebook, then they would be able to associate that information they have gathered with a name. Your name.
Almost everything out there takes part in collecting your information. Newspapers, shops, they’re all in for a bite. Even this blog, hosted on a Google platform, will collect information about you towards Google’s coffers. Add it all together and you can see how these tracking companies can build a very detailed and accurate profile about the online you: they know what you did last summer. Who needs the NSA when a weather app can do the exact same job?

The good news is that there are defensive weapons in our arsenal with which to protect ourselves. There are actually quite a few; I have already discussed some of these means here. This time around I will focus on tools that deal with trackers directly. In particular I will look at services that acquired the reputation of being most effective, Ghostery and Disconnect.
In their basic form, Ghostery and Disconnect are incredibly similar. Both offer add-ons to the PC web browser you should be using (either Firefox or Chrome), that contain lists of trackers better off ignored. Once you land on a website, say this one, Ghostery/Disconnect will detect it is trying to send info back to Google and stop that from happening. Thus they do not prevent tracking, they also make your Internet faster. Once you start using them, you will be amazed to see how much tracking goes on in the background of the sites you like to visit the most!
They are not without fault, though. The main fault is that in many cases the operation of the website depends on its tracking working as designed. For example, I found Flight Centre’s website will not deliver me a quote as long as its trackers were subdued. Same goes for this blog: if you block Google’s tracking, it won’t allow you to search the blog. Luckily, both Disconnect and Ghostery allow users to whitelist sites or momentarily disable their add-ons at will. You can also decide which trackers you want disabled and which not; in my opinion, Ghostery does a better job there.
Which brings me to choosing between the two, as there is no point in having both running together. In my opinion, Ghostery offers the slightly better product in the sense it offers more tailoring tools. However, I also find Ghostery more buggy, particularly on Firefox; I had to reinstall Firefox twice before giving up and installing Disconnect instead (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I will note it is highly likely the problem is not directly with Ghostery in the first place but rather with it colliding with other add-ons, but still: the point is we have two good products to choose from, both of which happen to be free.

Wait, I hear you say. Who cares about the PC environment anymore anyway? We do most of our Internet stuff on our smartphones/tablets nowadays!
True. The good thing is, Ghostery and Disconnect have solutions for you there, too. Only that in the mobile department their approach differs.
On its side, Ghostery offers iOS users a web browser called (wait for it!) Ghostery. If you use it, you will enjoy the same blocking you enjoy on your PC. However, there are two catches: first, Ghostery’s browser is quite buggy and not half as capable as Safari. Starting from the look and feel, you will notice it is in another league – a lower one. Second, many if not most people’s mobile Internet action takes place through apps rather than a proper browser; these people are not catered for by Ghostery.
Luckily, Disconnect comes to the rescue with a product called Disconnect Kids. The name is misleading: this is not an app for kids, it’s an app for everyone; it comes from the legal loophole where, by American law, companies are forbidden from tracking kids under 13 but can get away with it if they can’t tell whether the person they are tracking is a kid or not. What Disconnect is trying to say is, let us all be kids!
Their app works in a rather brilliant way (read here from the horse’s mouth): it installs a profile on your iPhone/iPad that detects traffic heading towards the most notorious of Internet trackers, and simply directs that traffic to oblivion. Thus not only does Disconnect Kids protect you from tracking, it also reduces the burden on your mobile Internet connection.
The disadvantage of Disconnect’s approach is to do with the absolute way in which it works. Its mechanism prevents subtlety; you either block a tracker or you don’t, with little in the way of flexibility (changing a profile takes a while and requires more than basic understanding). This implies you won’t want to permanently block Google’s trackers, because if you do so you will probably find too many things not working as they should. You will get annoyed at Disconnect Kids, disable it, and then the whole point of the affair would be lost. As a result, Disconnect Kids will only deal with some 20 trackers (Ghostery’s app, in comparison, deals with about a thousand).
Still, the point is that the combination of Ghostery and Disconnect on an iOS device offers better tracker protection than a “naked” device. And unlike some of their competition, both Ghostery and Disconnect have no access to your data and offer extremely simple privacy policies.
I would say that having Ghostery or Disconnect on your browser is a must; having both on your iGadget is, too.

Image copyrights: Ghostery and Disconnect

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