In the physical world, we don’t wear our ID on our foreheads. This is convenient because we can walk around with a reasonable expectation of privacy and let our curiosity take us to interesting places. That shoe store you sauntered into because they had a pair that caught your eye has no idea who you are, where you live, or anything about you. More importantly, any attempt by that shoe store to have an employee follow you around would not only be impractical, but would be met with some serious side-eye from potential customers.
In the digital world, this isn’t true. Useful web technologies that make the sites you visit convenient and powerful can also be co-opted to track you wherever you go. The same incredible economies of scale that allow billions of people worldwide to stay connected also allow for the implementation of inexpensive and powerful methods of tracking. The profits from the sale of one pair of shoes allows the online shoe store to track thousands of people in the hopes of turning them into customers.
You would notice a beleaguered shoe store employee following you around, but you’re unlikely to notice most forms of online tracking. We’ve all had the experience where ads magically seem to follow you around, in a practice known as ‘retargeting’, and it’s often unnerving for users. However, the reality is that online tracking is mostly invisible. What’s more is that it’s used to create a profile that ties together as much data as possible in a practice called “cookie syncing” in an effort to predict your habits and preferences, in the hopes that the ads and recommendations you get are more likely to trigger your behavior in a desirable way.
Sometimes, information about you can be helpful. For instance, finding out what the most popular accessories are for your new phone can help you make better decisions about what to buy. Of greater concern is the lack of consent. In the real world, we generally look before we leap, but on the Internet, there’s no way to ‘preview’ the tracking of a site before you click a link. Often without your knowledge, information about you and your visit is compiled into an online profile that can be shared and sold to others without your knowledge.
What’s true for shoes also applies to ideas. Another often overlooked inconvenience is how tracking impacts people’s ability to explore new areas of the web. Against the backdrop of growing online bubbles and polarized media, if all the content you get recommendations for is in the same line of thought, how much are you able to explore what’s across the political line?
With 40% of US internet users saying they have recently used ad blockers, people clearly have an intuitive understanding that trackers and ads can be annoying, but do ad blockers do what they want?
Many in the tech world have been looking into this. When the companies providing the ad blocker are also the world’s biggest advertising networks, will it truly give you the tools to be inconspicuously curious?
Google Chrome’s approach is focused on annoying ads. Its ad blocker blocks ads, but it does nothing against invisible trackers or tracking ads that comply with the standards of the Better Ads Coalition, in which Facebook and Google are key partners. Even Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Protection has a set of rules that favor trackers operated by sites that users visit at least once a day. Unsurprisingly, Google and Facebook are the sites most likely to fall into this category.
If you’re not using Firefox Quantum today and care about your privacy, I encourage you to give Firefox Quantum a try. With Tracking Protection turned on, you’ll get a web that lets you browse freely with fewer worries about pesky trackers, built by an independent organization that doesn’t run an ad network.