Today’s online tracking is, unfortunately, very impressive. Ad networks can deliver content with pinpoint precision thanks to the huge mass of data their trackers gather about you and your online activities. It’s no longer about just finding IP address. There were rumors about tech companies listening in to conversations and using audio recording for advertising purposes, but what they’re actually doing is a lot scarier.
Instead of doing something as blatant as turning your smartphone microphone on and recording your conversations, tech companies now utilize thousands – if not millions – of tiny ways to track your online activities. When I say tiny, I mean the size of a single pixel. A simple tracking code, combined with the way modern websites are designed, allows trackers to learn a lot about you.
So, how does online tracking really work? What does the internet know about you? In this article we are going to answer these questions, and others related to tracking.
Getting to Know Online Tracking
As mentioned before, online tracking has gotten incredibly advanced. A lot of information can be gathered about you by using simple techniques like pixel trackers and cookies. The entire data collection process begins with identifying your IP address, which is a very simple process, to begin with.
Whenever you access a website or an online server (i.e. the database server of an app you use) your IP address gets logged. The server will also log additional information that gets transmitted with your request, including details about your device and your web browser.
You are already showing a lot just by accessing a site. The receiving server can instantly tell that you are using the latest MacBook Pro with a Chrome browser. It can even tell your browser version, as well as the version of your operating system in some instances.
Don’t forget that your IP address reveals a lot about who you are, starting with your geolocation. Each IP can be traced back to a specific location based on its headers, so you are already being tracked by location. At the same time, some IP addresses are tied to ISPs or users directly.
Data into Groups
While advertising networks don’t really offer access to granular data about who you are to advertisers, they can still target you in a specific way. Aside from the basic data captured from your IP address, trackers like Facebook Pixel can gather more information about your online activities.
When you move from one site to the next – both of which utilize Facebook Pixel – your online surfing habits are recorded. Cookies from different websites collect even more information, including details about purchases and the pages you visit.
Does it stop there? Not really. More information about your interests, the time during which you are most active, and details about your spending habits are also among the information that modern trackers can collect in real-time.
These details allow advertising networks to classify you to specific groups. While advertisers cannot target you directly, they can specifically target those who have visited a specific website in the last 24-hours, those with certain interests and hobbies, and even people who are ready to buy a specific item.
The data collection process becomes more intrusive when you take device fingerprinting into the equation. Device fingerprinting basically identifies your devices without using cookies. Every time you use the device (including your work laptop and your smartphone) trackers can collect information about you.
Imagine the amount of information this new online tracking method can collect in a short period of time; scary, isn’t it? Once again, your granular data isn’t being used directly, but insights derived from that granular data can still be used to paint a clear picture of who you are.
Virtually every site in the World Wide Web today utilizes a tracker. Some even have multiple trackers installed, mainly for the purpose of running digital marketing campaigns. What these sites often fail to realize is that the tracking data isn’t just used to refine their own marketing campaigns, but rather to profile users in a more general way.
The best way to protect yourself from online tracking is by eliminating the one metric that acts as the foundation for tracking your online activities: your IP address. The way to do that is by utilizing a proxy server whenever you want to surf the web.
A proxy server acts as an intermediary between you – your devices – and the destination servers. Instead of your IP address and information about your devices, the servers you access will record details about the proxy servers.
Adding a proxy between you and the World Wide Web means installing an extra layer of security to protect your privacy. With tracking technologies becoming more advanced, dynamically changing your IP address using proxies and taking extra steps to make sure that you are not being tracked makes collecting data about your online activities more difficult.
You should also delete cookies often in order to remove all online tracking cookies from your browser. Remember to set your browser to never accept third-party cookies. If you want, you can also install a User Agent spoofing extension for your browser, to hide some additional information, like the brand name of your device and the browser you are using.
Nevertheless, average people are on the losing side of the tracking deal, and every measure we take only delays the inevitable all-seeing tracker future.
James Keenan. The automation and anonymity evangelist at Smartproxy. He believes in data freedom and everyone’s right to become a self-starter.
IMAGE 1: by Alejandro Escamilla from unsplash.com
IMAGE 2: by Hannah Wei from unsplash.com