We’ve all been there. You look at a product for your friend’s baby shower online, and suddenly Facebook and every other site you visit is advertising everything baby-related.
Not only that, but your brief visit to the baby site has now changed your algorithm, so more of the same baby products, articles about babies and new mom groups are everywhere.
It all comes down to the fact that Facebook and other companies routinely track your online habits to better target you with advertising.
Now two web browsers want to help you fight back, in what AP News is calling “an escalating privacy arms race”.
First, here’s how your digital profile is created:
Cookies and other trackers can be used by companies to keep track of who you are as you move from website to website. The companies can build a digital profile as you, say, read about Democratic or Republican viewpoints, buy a particular brand of pet food or indulge in the entire season of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
News, video and other third-party sites use Google and Facebook cookies to customize [sic] ads to your hobbies and interests, rather than hawking products you might never buy. That’s why you might see an ad for shoes soon after searching for them elsewhere.
In response to this, Apple and Mozilla want to change things in favour of privacy. That isn’t surprising, considering how many people are opting for a media detox due to privacy concerns.
New protections in Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers aim to prevent companies from turning “cookie” data files used to store sign-in details and preferences into broader trackers that take note of what you read, watch and research on other sites.
Lance Cottrell (below), creator of the privacy service Anonymizer, said Apple’s effort was particularly significant, as it takes aim at a technique developed by tracking companies to override users’ attempts to delete their cookies.
Safari makes these protections automatic in updates coming Tuesday to iPhones and iPads and a week later to Mac computers. Firefox has similar protections on Apple mobile devices and is rolling out them out to personal computers in the coming months.
In order to get your hands on the protections, you’ll have to break the habit of using Google Chrome. This is significant because current data estimates that nearly half the worldwide browser usage happens on Chrome, whereas Safari and Firefox have less than 20% combined.
Also, don’t get too excited just yet – they can’t stop tracking completely.
For starters, they won’t block tracking when you’re using Facebook or Google itself. Nor can they help much when you use phone or tablet apps, unless the app happens to embed Safari, as Twitter’s iPhone app does.
But Will Strafach, a mobile security expert who is designing data security tools for phones, said imperfect protection is better than no protection. He notes that burglars can still break down a door, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother locking it.
OK, fair enough. Especially because Apple’s tests show that some popular websites are embedded with over 70 trackers – most of them from Facebook and Google.
Facebook’s use of trackers should come as no surprise following the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal.
Which brings us to how Apple and Mozilla plan on blocking trackers:
Safari will try to automatically distinguish cookies that are useful from ones that are there just to track you. Apple notes that cookies can appear in unexpected places, such as sites that embed “like” and “share” buttons. Now, those cookies will be blocked until you click on one of those buttons, in which case you’ll be prompted for permission to allow the tracking. If you don’t, your “like” won’t register.
Safari is also attacking a technique developed to circumvent cookie deletions. Through “fingerprinting,” a company can identify you through your computer’s characteristics, such as browser type and fonts installed. Your new cookie can then be tied to your old profile. Safari will now limit the technical details it sends.
Firefox has an anti-tracking feature that also tries to distinguish tracking cookies from useful ones. It’s on by default only on Apple’s mobile devices. Mozilla is testing a broader rollout for personal computers, though its plans for Android are not yet known. For now, you need to turn it on or use a private-browsing mode, which gets more aggressive at killing cookies, including useful ones.
There will also be an optional add-on for PCs called Facebook Container, that segregates your Facebook usage from other sites.
Naturally, advertisers aren’t happy.
Everyone else is pretty stoked.
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