Browsing and Privacy: How to Not Get Tracked

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All modern browsers have built-in tools and add-ons to protect users from having their Web behavior tracked. But regardless, some sites still find ways to track you. Here are tips for taking matters into your own hands.CIO — If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War, you know what an arms race is. One side comes up with a new weapon, the other side matches it, and then the first comes back with something even bigger and so on and so on. That also describes the ongoing battle between computer users who value their privacy and the Web sites and their advertisers that don’t.

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Clearing the cache is easy: In Firefox, go to “tools,” then “clear recent history.” In Internet Explorer 9, go to “tools” and “safety,” then “delete browsing history.” In Chrome, go to settings and then “under the hood.” Then click “clear browsing data.”

But remember. We’re talking arms race here. The UC Berkeley report also talks about a nasty technique called “respawning,” which means just what it sounds like: The cookie recreates itself. These are hard to defeat. One way is to block any caching at all, but as I mentioned, not having a cache will slow your browser down.

There are two Firefox add-ons that are probably helpful, but I haven’t had a chance to try them yet. One is called SafeCache, which doesn’t yet work with Firefox 6 and RequestPolicy, which does work with Firefox 6.
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RequestPolicy blocks what are called “cross-site requests,” which means that a site you’re visiting requests data about a site you’ve visited in the past. That’s important information for advertisers and for Web sites that want to know where people are coming from.

But you may think that’s intrusive, which is why you may want to use RequestPolicy.  MCITP Online TrainingFree MCTS Training – (Note: This add-on is probably not suitable for you if you’re not comfortable digging under the hood of a browser and making changes.) If other browsers have similar add-ons, I haven’t heard of them.

Lastly, let’s go over the basic defenses you can use against the most common and less sophisticated tracking techniques.

All of the major browsers have some built-in defenses. The first is called private browsing, which stops your browser from making note of where you’ve been in its history file. That’s worth doing if you’re visiting sites that you don’t want other users of that computer to know you’ve visited. It’s very easy to turn on private browsing; in Firefox for example, simply click the “Firefox” button and select private browsing. IE 9 has an option called “inPrivate” browsing you can find on the tools tab and Chrome has incognito mode.

But private browsing isn’t necessarily all that private. In addition to the super cookie issue, some of the extensions you might add to those browsers can reduce their effectiveness. Still, it’s certainly worth using private browsing modes if you’re concerned about tracking. You can also check a box that says something like “tell Web sites I don’t want to be tracked”, and as you’d expect, some Web sites will honor that and others won’t.

Finally, drill down. Each of the three major browsers has quite a few settings involving privacy, and it’s worth a few extra clicks to check them out.