User tracking on the Internet has been in the news more frequently in recent time, even before the whole PRISM scandal shocked the nation and the rest of the world.
Tracking refers to following a user on the Internet. You should not take this in a literal sense though, as no one is watching you while you surf to follow you to the sites and servers you visit.
What is happening is something else: When you visit a website or service, it is possible to identify you under certain circumstances even if you have never been to the site before. Here are a couple of possible options that companies have:
- If you log in to sites, they can identify you. This enables the company to track you across its properties, say on Google sites or on Facebook.
- Your IP address is like a unique identifier for the time being. It is not the most thorough identifier though as most IPs are dynamic, which means that other users may also be mapped to it at a different point in time.
- Browser cookies and other data snippets that are saved to your system. This is the dominating form of monitoring users on the Internet. A basic example are Facebook Like boxes that you see on a lot of sites. A script that is hosted by Facebook is loaded whenever you visit a site with a box giving Facebook the information that you have just visited that site.
No – legal – tracking method can detect all the websites that you visit, unless you have installed a browser extension or software that reports those information to the company that has created them.
Tracking protection is a rather new system that has been designed to put users back in charge. It gives you the option to notify websites during the connection process whether you want to be tracked or not.
While that is a good thing in theory, its effectiveness is diminished by the fact that companies may honor that notification but do not have to.
Several prestigious companies have agreed to honor the header though, but others may or may not.
You also need to understand that “not being tracked” is not the same as not seeing ads at all. You will still see advertisement on the Internet, but advertisers do not use tracked data to “optimized” the ads you see on websites.
Configuring the Do Not Track feature
You need to configure the Do Not Track in most browsers before the header is transferred with every connection that you make.
The easiest way to enable Do Not Track in the Firefox web browser is the following:
- Press the Alt-key to bring up the menu bar of the browser.
- Select Tools > Options from the menu.
- Switch to the Privacy tab and locate the Tracking section there.
- Check the “Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked” option
Here is how you configure the feature in Google Chrome:
- Select the menu icon in the top right corner of the browser window and there Settings from the context menu.
- Click on the “Show advanced settings” link here.
- Under Privacy, locate “Send a ‘Do not Track’ request with your browsing traffic.
Microsoft Internet Explorer
From Internet Explorer 10 on, Do Not Track is enabled by default. You do not need to do anything if you are using IE.
So, should you or should not you enable the feature in your web browser of choice? That depends largely on you and I cannot really give you a recommendation for that.
If the idea of being tracked scares you, then you may enable the feature to limit the tracking that you are exposed to. It won’t get rid of it completely though so keep that in mind when you are making the decision.