Stop tracking cookies in their tracks with Ghostery, a web browser extension that controls how much of your personal browsing history is being monitored. But what are tracking cookies, and how does Ghostery help?
It’s a cool day in Hades when Microsoft introduces genuine innovation in one of its products. Especially when that innovation seems to side with the computer end-user rather than its usual business partners.
The issue is third-party tracking, a ubiquitous phenomenon that has become big business in recent years.
When you visit a web site, as well as the text and images that you see, your computer is also typically sent a small data file – a cookie. This is discreetly stored on your PC with encoded details about your every visit, along with personal preferences such as your chosen language.
But besides the original site you visit, cookies are also sent your way by other vested interests who are partnering with the host website - typically advertisers and traffic analysers.
Traffic analysers will monitor how long you stay on each page and which links you follow, in order to build a picture of the way you move around the site. The time you spend on each page can be recorded, along with your chosen navigation path through the site as you click on each link.
Google, conspicuously, has feet in both the analysis and advertising camps; it offers its Google Analytics service to help site owners understand their visitors’ habits, as well as being an online ad broker, to place its clients’ banner advertisements within web pages.
Pitching itself at site owners, Facebook claims it ‘enables your users to... seamlessly "connect" their Facebook account and information with your site’.
Using the embedded Facebook ‘Like’ button, for instance, site owners get ‘detailed analytics about the demographics of your users’.
These third-party tracking cookies mean you can be tracked as you move from one site to the next. And thus tracking-specialist companies build up a profile of your general surfing tastes and preferences, in order to direct adverts at you – tailored to what it thinks will be of relevance or interest to you.
Not all web users want their surfing habits monitored. A well-known example of a backlash against such practices is the unauthorised monitoring trial in the UK by Phorm.
Phorm used a combination of deep-packet inspection and tracking cookies in order to follow people’s personal browsing habits and build up an ‘anonymised’ profile of an ISP’s every customer.
Working initially with BT and later TalkTalk and Virgin Media, Phorm first conducted trials of BT internet users’ browsing without asking consent; action later declared illegal under UK law.
Investigations by the European Commission suggested that the UK government itself also broke European consumer privacy directives by allowing Phorm to follow web users without their consent.
There’s a fine line between tracking cookies and spyware. Five years ago or more, spyware was a widespread and troubling form of infection for Windows PCs.
In one form, it started exactly what modern third-party cookie tracking is now doing – spying on a web user’s browsing history and sending that information to a remote server for use by advertisers.
Importantly, one thing unites the spying conducted by Phorm and that by everyday tracking-cookie specialists: they closely monitor your browsing history and habits without ever asking for your opt-in consent.
If you’re not so keen to have your daily online life monitored, you could simply set your browser to not accept cookies. Unfortunately, many sites will not work well or at all if cookies are disabled. Online shopping and email services in particular are often reliant on storing cookies on users’ computers.
Or you could selectively screen out just the third-party tracking cookies to restore some privacy to your web wanderings. This is what Microsoft is testing in the beta version of Internet Explorer 9.
But this is not Microsoft’s invention – you can get this privacy screen working today, in the form of an add-on for most modern web browsers.
Its developer is The Better Advertising Project, Inc whose stated aim is to help provide a more trusted environment for everyone in the online ecosystem.
With the small Ghostery extension installed, you can elect to block the transmission of tracking cookies to your PC in the first place.
Additionally you can choose to just see who is trying to follow you with an ‘alert bubble’ – a translucent notifications overlay in the top-right corner of your web browser’s window, that lists the trackers it has found embedded in that page.
If the name has a strikethrough, that tracker is now being blocked.
A small Ghostery icon in the browser toolbar also shows a number in red; that’s the sum total of tracking cookies that are trying to track you on each page that you visit.
Ghostery running in Apple Safari 5: purple alert bubble in top-right corner fades after a few seconds, or you can see full details of any bug by clicking on the Ghostery icon on the browser toolbar
A setup wizard helps you select a few options when you first run the extension.
Within Ghostery’s preferences, you can configure how much you would like to be spied upon. There’s some fine-grained control here to select how the app works.
You can set which company’s monitoring tools – or ‘bugs’ as Ghostery describes them – you would prefer to block.
At time of writing, for example, Ghostery has 436 bugs listed, in its database of companies involved in this business.
The Usual Suspects
This list includes the usual suspects like Google Adsense, Doubleclick (now owned by Google), Omniture (Adobe's online marketing suite) and Quantcast.
The database is updated regularly by the app’s developer, The Better Advertising Project, Inc. If you wish, you can set this bug list to be updated for your computer automatically.
You can also whitelist a chosen website where Ghostery will not block bugs otherwise universally denied.
Within Ghostery’s options, a tickbox enables GhostRank, a user-contributed survey of extant bugs found in use. If you elect to join, previously unknown tracking bugs encountered in your personal surfing can be anonymously added to the Ghostery database.
In use, we found Ghostery to work very well, keeping us informed of what trackers each site sets, and showing which websites rely heavily on the harvesting of their visitors’ personal browsing.
As a side effect, we found web pages often loaded much faster. Some sites rely on a raft of tracking-cookie statistics from each user before they will load advertisements inline. With this spying unavailable, the ads would fail to appear at all, making the requested content load faster and overall surfing speedier.
If you would prefer to see the ads, you can of course selectively whitelist the websites whose ads you find useful.
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