What you need to know about online tracking (and how to stop it)

Let’s say you’re on an outdoor pizza oven website dreaming about someday owning one. Mmm pizza. Next you switch gears and visit a fitness site; lo and behold an ad for the pizza oven you were just looking at is there, too. Then you go to YouTube to see how easy it would be to build your own pizza oven (it’s too hard), but first you have to sit through an advertisement about, you guessed it, that same pizza oven. Time to check social media on your phone, and there it is again, grinning at you as a sponsored post in your feed.

It’s not just a feeling. That ad really is following you and it happens all the time. So how do these sites all know exactly how to tempt you to a point of annoyance? Is it magic? Nope. The answer is web trackers.

What are web trackers?

Generally, a tracker is a script in the code of websites designed to gather data points about you are as you interact with the site. Sometimes they are placed purposefully by the site you’re visiting, while other times a tracker may be from a website you’ve never visited. Understanding the ways your data is collected can help you limit your exposure to trackers in the future.

Here are some common web trackers to watch out for:

Cross-site tracking cookies follow you from site to site to gather data about what you do online, most often without your knowledge or consent. They are set by third parties such as advertisers and analytics companies to track you, profile you, make inferences about your interests and retarget you with ads wherever you go online.

Social media trackers are placed by social networks on other websites to follow what you do, see and watch online. This allows social media companies to collect more data about you in addition to what you share on your social media profiles.

Fingerprinters collect settings from your browser and computer to create a profile of you. The info collected can include details like your screen resolution, operating system, fonts and other apps you’ve installed. Using this digital fingerprint, they can create a unique profile to track you across different websites.

Cryptominers are a type of malware that use your system’s computing power to mine digital money. Cryptomining scripts drain your battery, slow down your computer and can increase your energy bill.

These third-party web trackers come from separate entities — vast ad networks, dataminers and marketing firms, for example — that you’ve never heard of and almost certainly didn’t agree to share your information with. By placing trackers on sites across the web, they can collect tons of data about you and share it with whomever they want. It’s kind of creepy.

What do web trackers know about you?

Maybe you’re thinking: Trackers track. Who cares if a shoe ad follows me around? For starters, web trackers can be used to learn a great deal more about you than your footwear obsession. Things like your:

  • age
  • gender
  • relationship status
  • family members
  • mom’s name
  • mom’s mom’s name
  • income
  • education
  • ethnicity
  • hobbies
  • health concerns
  • financial situation
  • bra size
  • fertility
  • movie genre preference
  • diet
  • fitness routine
  • sexual desires
  • exact location right now
  • likelihood to vote
  • and so much more

Even if ad targeting sounds innocuous — what’s another pair of kicks, after all — the level of detail used in ad targeting is increasingly complex. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) classifies content online upon which advertisers can target you against, making it possible for advertisers to know very personal things about what you might be going through based on your internet consumption. Some of these classifications include “Panic/Anxiety Disorders,” “Sexuality,” “Substance Abuse,” “Special Needs Kids,” “Infertility,” “Legal Issues,” “Credit/Debt & Loans,” and “Divorce Support” — highly personal information that advertisers just don’t need to know about you. And that’s just the beginning.

It’s impossible to know how complete and invasive our profiles are because we can’t easily access them. There is no real way for you to know what information they collect about you, what they do with it, how securely it is stored, how long it will be circulated, who they are sharing it with, and who they are selling it to.

It goes beyond selling you shoes. It’s impossible to know how and when this information will be used for price discrimination, employment discrimination, service denials, election influencing, and other insidious practices.

When you take all that into account, why not stop third parties from tracking you when you can?

How to stop web trackers

Stopping trackers is easier than you think with Enhanced Tracking Protection from Firefox. This feature is enabled automatically in the Firefox Browser, making it much harder for over a thousand companies from tracking you online, from perusing pizza ovens to virtually trying on shoes to researching unusual rashes.

The Firefox privacy protections dashboard also reveals just who is trying to track you behind the scenes. On some sites, the list of trackers reads like the ingredient list on a highly processed snack cake — long, artificial and unappetizing. While the number of trackers you block fluctuates depending on the sites you visit, Firefox users collectively block more than ten billion trackers daily worldwide!

Unlock even more protection

You can take your privacy and security to the next level with some of the other privacy-first products in the Firefox family. Firefox Monitor alerts you if your information surfaces in a data breach, and Firefox Lockwise keeps your passwords protected and portable between your devices. These protections (and more) are available for free when you’re signed into your Firefox account.