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Online Privacy and Your Digital Footprint: Minimizing online tracking through web browsers

What is web tracking?

Ever wonder how it is that your laptop somehow knows what you just searched on your phone, or where the ad images you see on your Pinterest or Facebook feed come from? That's web tracking in action (or personalization, as it's called in marketing). While this might be a useful advertising tool, the amount of data being collected about us, without our knowledge or consent, can be troubling - especially when that data is stolen or sold. 

Once collected, there are no automatic limits on how someone could use data - so it's wise to control how much personal information is collected in the first place.

Image: eyeball looking through a keyhole.

How does web tracking work?

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers an explanation of different types of cookies (also available in Spanish).

FreeCodeCamp's blog post on web tracking Web Tracking: What You Should Know About Your Privacy Online gives technical details on how websites and browsers collect information.

Check your

Check your privacy security - you can use this tool to test your webtracking protection.

Protect yourself by:

Make sure that your browser's settings reflect your privacy preferences. You can do this by:

1. Setting security parameters in your browsers. Pay attention to:

  • cookies
  • browsing history / cached websites
  • pop-ups
  • location tracking
  • saved credit card information
  • JavaScript
  • and use an Ad-blocker, if possible

CalTech has comprehensive advice for students on what to turn off for improved privacy. WikiHow gives directions for Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari; and Consumer Reports has an article on Google Chrome privacy settings (links below).


2. Some browsers offer a "private" or "incognito" search mode (Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer). Using the web in this mode will interfere with some functions that require identity tokens (filling in forms, using pop-ups or cookies, etc,) - you might decide that is a fair trade-off. The University of Michigan has posted quick links to private browsing here, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence's Technology Tips has more details. 


3. You could use DuckDuckGo, StartPage, or Brave  (free browser extensions that work on top of Chrome, Safari, Firefow and.or Opera), which block your data from being saved externally.

Also, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger blocks invisible web trackers.


4. Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, claim to not store any information about you (this article from Wired magazine gives more details).