Tracking Diaries with Melanie Ehrenkranz

In Tracking Diaries, we invited people from all walks of life to share how they spent a day online while using Firefox’s privacy protections to keep count of the trackers that tried to follow them. 

Whenever you’re online, a multitude of third parties attempt to record what you’re doing, largely without your knowledge or consent. Creepy! That’s why Firefox has turned the tables, letting you block and see the trackers. Read on to find out how many trackers tried to trail writer Melanie Ehrenkranz throughout her day, and how she felt about it.

Name: Melanie Ehrenkranz
Occupation: Freelance writer & researcher
Favorite thing on the internet: New York Times Cooking, Brooklyn Public Library Staff Picks, when my friends send me dumb tweets.
Diary dates: Jan. 11 and 15, 2020

As a freelance writer, how I exist online varies greatly from day to day. I might go from doing research down a disturbing internet rabbit hole one day, to looking up challah recipes and checking email to take a break from kneading the next.

But whether I’m digging into the creepy corners of the web or mindlessly scrolling through food photos, I know that with each new tab and click, my data is being collected, analyzed, sold and used to target me. The insidious reality of surfing the web these days means either going to great lengths to obfuscate your habits, or being intimately and constantly tracked.

Being online often feels paradoxical to a commitment toward user privacy, but it’s 2020, and my job is contingent on it.

Day 1 / 10 a.m. / Trackers = 121

I logged in and checked my email, opened up a few Google Docs relevant to freelance assignments, and mindlessly scrolled through my Facebook feed (which feels like remnants of a once fulfilling activity that is now merely an action of meaningless habit. I ex-out after a minute or two.) I also opened up my Google Calendar to check my schedule and make a few appointments for the following week.

I had to do some app research for a client, so I opened up some tabs for various plant apps on the App Store. It’s also important to note that I have Tweetdeck running in a tab at all times, and I occasionally glance over to check my DMs for tweets my friends send me or my feeds for updates on tech and culture news. Though I am admittedly trying to spend less time on the service. For my health 🙂

12 p.m. / Trackers = 208

I was offline for a few minutes grabbing coffee across the street.

I finished The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa the night before, and the ending had been haunting me all morning, so I searched for reviews of the book online and pored over them for a bit. I then went to a dystopia book club Slack I’m in and dropped a note about the book and a link to a review I enjoyed.

Next, for story research, I had to go to a few websites that I don’t ideologically align with. If anything, this would surely skew the exhaustive profile data broking firms were creating on me, which I guess isn’t a bad thing.

It’s kind of like Firefox’s TrackTHIS tool, which opens up a gross amount of tabs to fit a specific profile to trick these firms into believing you’re effectively someone you’re not. In this case, advertisers might (incorrectly) believe my preferences to lean more conservative anti-choice. Though I’m not regularly doing research of this nature, so this will only slant my data for a temporary period of time.

Day 2 / 3 p.m. / Trackers = 43

I spent a few hours online on Saturday to catch up on some projects, emails, personal matters, etc. I started by checking my email, where I opened up a few recipes linked from The New York Times Cooking newsletter and saved them to my recipe box.

I then went to my therapist’s online portal to schedule an appointment. I wrapped up my first hour by going to Twitter and checking my DMs from the two or three friends that regularly send me that sweet, idiotic content, scrolling through a couple videos and memes before scrolling through my curated news feeds, which are a lot less funny.

5 p.m. / Trackers = 367

There was a spike in trackers here, and based on the breakdown of types of trackers blocked, these were mostly third-party tracking cookies. These are most commonly used by ad and analytics services, not the company whose website you’re currently on.

Social networks like Twitter, which I was on, use cookies for a number of reasons, including to remember information about my browser, my preferences, and how I use the service to do things like target me with what the company believes to be more relevant ads and recommendations.

A week or so ago, I got my recommendations back from the Brooklyn Public Library’s BookMatch Service, so I opened up a lot (a lot) of tabs for each of the books on my list to learn more about them. These were mostly tabs on Amazon, Goodreads, Penguin Random House and Catapult.

I then opened my library catalog booklist to see which ones I wanted to put on hold. I then opened up Slack and Google Docs to work on a freelance consulting gig, which required some research into the houseplant market, so I opened up a few relevant articles on sites like Bloomberg and NBC News.

Because I’m exhaustively Inbox Zero, I went back to my email to read a few freelance newsletters and opened up tweet tabs for writing opportunities.

7 p.m. / Trackers = 421

I’m not surprised by the amount of trackers blocked—existing online without using a litany of browser extensions means being tracked by advertisers, and unless you’re intentionally opening up some sites irrelevant to your interests to fake them out, they’re going to collect your precious data, see how you behave online, and target you based on the profile they’re building.

Still, it’s wild and humbling to see the specific ways I’m being profiled and tracked online, especially when I’m mostly just messing around for a few hours on a Saturday.

I capped off my Saturday online by streaming an episode or two of the final season of Mr. Robot, a show in no small part about how much information we willingly feed to evil corporations. Xoxo.

Melanie is a freelance writer and researcher with a focus on technology and culture. Prior to freelancing, she worked as a reporter at Gizmodo. Her work has also been published on NBC News, Medium, The Outline, Motherboard, Mic, and San Diego CityBeat. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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