How Websites Are Tracking You Online

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Tracked Online
Have you ever gotten the creepy feeling that websites on the Internet are following you around? You are not being paranoid, they are doing this all the time even if some websites do it to a lesser extent than others.

You might have the experience of visiting a website and then you later log into Facebook only to find that ads from that website you visited are all over the place. Or you search for a laptop on Google and the next think you see are ads everywhere, even off Google, showing you laptops you could buy.

At the very least this is annoying and unsettling but online tracking has bigger privacy issue concerns that come with it. I for one hate being followed around with ads just because I searched for something or visited a certain website.

You might wonder how this is happening so that you can at least curb the activity or if you are like an entrepreneur friend of mine, you would like to capitalize on this and target your own users- I’m not here to judge.

Cookies and Tracking Scripts

If you have been using the Web for some time, you are aware of cookies. No, these are not the kind you buy from the shops and eat.

The cookies I am talking about are small text files that are left behind by websites you visit on your computer. Cookies contain information about your use of a website for later retrieval by that website.

You see, the web is a naturally stateless medium. What this means is that a website has no way of “remembering” anything about your visit to the website when you switch pages. Cookies are a convenient way for websites to pass site visit data across pages and across site visits.

Cookies are used, for example, to track that you are still logged in on Facebook the next time you visit the Facebook website and can also be used for all manner of tracking.

Typically cookies are only accessible to the website that set them but there are also types of cookie known as third party cookies. Third party cookies can be accessed by many websites that belong to the same network such as an ad network.

Cookies are used in conjunction with a script that resides on the tracking website so that they can process the data contained in cookies previously set by the website.

While cookies are convenient and allow you to stay logged in to certain sites, they are also a security risk and may be used to track your activity online.

You can curb tracking from websites by getting into the habit of periodically deleting the cookies on your computer. This is done through your web browser’s privacy security or history settings. 

IP Addresses

Every router or modem connected to the Internet has an IP address. The IP address is a unique identifier for that connection to the Internet and is used by all devices using the connection. Therefore, if you have a laptop and a mobile phone sharing an Internet connection, they will both have the same IP Address.

IP addresses can be used to pinpoint the city in which the user resides as well as identify the Internet service provider. 

IP addresses are not specific enough to identify an individual since Internet connections can be shared. Nevertheless, they are still a privacy concern and can be used in a general sense to track individuals and build ad profiles about their Internet usage activities.

Whenever you visit a website, that website gets and might log your IP address. There are no two ways about this. This always happens.

To curb the privacy risk associated with IP addresses, you may make use of a Virtual Private Network, VPN or a proxy server. These services act as an intermediary between your web browser and the website you are visiting.

VPNs and proxies will interact with the website you are visiting thereby hiding your IP address.

HTTP Referer

When you visit a website, a bunch of information about you is sent to that website in what are known as HTTP headers and one such piece of information is the HTTP referer. 

If you click on a link on a website to visit another website. The HTTP referer information will be passed on to the site you are visiting from the other website.

The new website will be aware of how you got there. If you visited a website by clicking a link on Google search for example, it will be known to the website you visit that you visited the site from clicking on Google.

This information can be used to track you such as in the scenario I mentioned earlier of being flooded with ads from a certain website after visiting it. 

There isn’t much you can do to curb this kind of privacy risk but it helps to be aware that it is happening.

Browser Signature

Along with the HTTP referer, your browser will also send to the website being visited user agent information. User agent data contains information such as the browser you are using and what operating system you are running.

This information also allows for you to be tracked online. There are browser extensions that will enable you to change your user agent data on the fly so that website cannot track you.

Privacy Vigilance

Privacy concerns online are a real issue and you should take the time to be vigilant when online. My biggest contention with online tracking is the annoying ads and I am vigilant enough to curb these whenever I can.

Ad networks are aggressively building user profiles about you with every website you visit and track your activities online. Even to the extent of using your screen size to track you. Some claim that there is no actual harm to their activities; but isn’t there? That is a discussion for another blog post.

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