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How do I stop websites from knowing what I'm doing?


If I’m reading a newspaper on the internet, I have the impression that the
paper knows what I am doing. How can I prevent this? With kindest regards.

In this excerpt from
Answercast #19
, I look at some of the methods that websites and advertisers
use to deliver (what they might consider to be) personalized ads. And yes, it
does involve tracking your browsing actions.


Website tracking

It depends on what you mean by “knows what you’re doing.”

The newspaper doesn’t obviously; it’s the website. The website may have advertisers that are part of advertising networks that build up profiles, not of you specifically, but the person, the average person in your area. Or a profile of the person who uses this computer (i.e. usually this person looks at these things; likes these things…)

They may end up targeting ads based on what they believe is most appropriate for you or for the generic person who uses this computer.

How to prevent tracking

You can prevent it to a certain degree by blocking all cookies. Then, all of a sudden, lots of things stop working. You can’t login to sites; you can’t stay logged into sites.

You can try it. Opt out of ad tracking. But that may not prevent whatever it is you mean by “the paper knows what you’re doing.”

The internet is not private

Ultimately, there’s a certain amount of (I don’t want to say privacy, but…) a certain amount of information that by the nature of using the internet, you are giving up. You are giving certain information to the newspaper.

Obviously, the newspaper (at least) knows which articles on the newspaper you’re looking at. They are tracking this in the sense that this computer visited that page, then that page, then that page.

They may be using that alone to infer all sorts of things about you, like the kinds of things you’re interested in. If you’re only visiting the sports pages, then chances are they’re only going to show you sports ads. If you’re only visiting the news or the entertainment pages, they may very well target based on that.

It’s difficult to say without knowing exactly what you mean by, “They know what you’re doing.”

The “price” we pay

In reality, in a very real sense, simply knowing what page you’re going to – one after the other, what pieces of information you’re viewing on a website – is part of the price you pay, if you will, for visiting that website.

Even on Ask Leo!, chances are when you visit this page, and then that page, and then another page, I can find that in my logs. I could track that if I wanted to. I have no reason to… but I could.

Online advertising

More to the point, the advertising networks that I use (in my particular situation, one provided by Google) certainly can track what you look at on my site… and potentially, what you look at on other sites that also use the same advertising provider.

That is, in a lot of ways, how a lot of the information on the internet stays free. So it’s not something that I generally worry about.

It’s not something that’s very easy to totally opt out of. But like I said, it really depends on what you mean by “knowing what you’re doing.”

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3 comments on “How do I stop websites from knowing what I'm doing?”

  1. I take issue with a statement Leo makes on the blog often. He states that the price to pay of free information is tracking. That’s just not true. Six or 7 years ago, there was very little tracking of what you did on the internet and still CNN, Yahoo, AOL, etc, were all free.

    It’s just technology has improved to track people. It’s definitely not the case that free media requires tracking; it’s actually just lining the pockets of investors.

    Use ghostery or adblock if you want to cut down on ads and tracking.

    I never said that today’s level of tracking has always been the price, but nonetheless it is the price today. The problem with adblock utilities is that the prevent honest providers from being able to make a living from their work. If everyone used adblock, for example, it’s pretty likely that Ask Leo! would not exist. (The usual alternative that’s suggested – donations – is nowhere near enough to sustain significant sites.)

  2. Sorry John, but that is absolutely true, or rather, the price of free information is advertising. Yahoo and AOL are still free, although both are facing bankcruptcy if reports are to be believed. Google, Twitter and Facebook are fantastic products that have revolutionised the sharing and dissemination of information and ideas… much would you pay for such a product? Free media requires advertising and advertising requires tracking hence Leo’s assertion is correct.

  3. A great compromise exists.
    Do Not Track plus [DNT+] from abine, allows you to block anything that tracks, and is configurable to allow exceptions. The little icon tells you exactly who’s attempting to track you. While FireFox offer this as an add-on, I’m sure it must work with IE too.

    I’ve learned two curious things since. One is that the social icons [twitter,Facebook, etc] do act as tracking software, even if you don’t use them. Also, while it allows ads to show, it blocks ads that also track. It actually blocks the ad from showing or playing, just because it tracks. I think that’s a fair compromise…I’ll let ads support a site, but the deals off when it wants to start tracking.

    I can watch CSI and NCIS on CBS through Hulu, and never see an ad. However, the same ad will appear elsewhere because it isn’t tracking on the other site.


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