Posted By Jonathan on August 6, 2013
Continuing the discussion I began about being safe on the Internet, I’d like to talk a little bit about a couple of tools in my privacy arsenal – two browser extensions called Ghostery and AdBlock Plus. I feel it is imperative that everyone install these browser extensions – they are simple to install, maintain and help to shift the private Internet back toward the individual.
Of the two, Ghostery is the most important to understand and use. Put simply, the Internet is absolutely littered with what I consider malicious code – a technology called the tracker. Nearly EVERY site on the Internet uses some form of tracker to log usage information about you, every time you visit a particular site. The worst offenders are media sites such as CNN and Fox News, however, government websites are not far behind.
This usage information includes a lot of identifying information – particularly your IP Address & geographical information. The most troubling thing that is tracked, however, isn’t an individual piece of information. Large swaths of information are collected about what websites you visit, what time of day you visit them, and even your location while you visit them. These pools of information are put together to form trends about who you are, what you like to do and learn about – in short, to figure out who you are.
It has gotten so bad that Google actually claims to be able to predict the future of stock prices based on this data. They also claim to be able to gather societal wide trends such as flu stats and car sales. You can only imagine what they know about the individual, since this is much more accessible to analysis. The CIA was talking about predicting mass movements back in 1962. Can you imagine what is going on today with the pervasiveness of our technology?
Ghostery does a good job of helping to put a stop to all of this. The tracker code that gives large firms and the government this information is blocked by Ghostery when a website loads.
Here is an example of Ghostery blocking trackers on CNN ->
Each time you load a website with Ghostery enabled, a popup will show up in the corner outlining what is attempting to analyze your visit. If the trackers are crossed out this means they have been blocked.
One important configuration item to enable is the ‘Auto Block New Trackers’ item. If this is enabled, new trackers that are added to the Ghostery database will be blocked by default. Without this, they would not be blocked until you tell Ghostery to block them. This setting can be found on the ‘Advanced’ tab.
A second important setting is the ‘Auto Update’ item. Enabling this will allow Ghostery to stay up-to-date on its own. I am not sure of the interval of updating, but I’d guess it checks every day.
There is a setting that you will NOT want to enable as well. It is called ‘Ghost Rank’ and enabling it lets Ghostery track the ads that it is blocking! Isn’t tracking what we are trying to block? There is information out there that suggests this ‘anonymous statistical data’ is actually shared with the companies that build trackers, but this may not be accurate. Either way, we want LESS data to be logged about us, so don’t enable Ghost Rank!
One final note – on a periodic basis you will want to make sure that Ghostery is actually keeping everything blocked. Do this by checking the ‘Trackers’ and ‘Cookies’ tabs on the main configuration screen. Make sure that is says ‘Blocking 1590 of 1590 Trackers’ or something to the same effect. Do the same for the ‘Cookies’ tab. If it is not blocking all, click on the ‘Select All’ button. Then click ‘Save’.
You have just taken a giant step towards preserving your online privacy.
AdBlock Plus is an extension I ran across when trying to get rid of YouTube ads. They are ridiculously irritating! Adblock plus completely removes not only YouTube ads, but a whole slew of other ads as well. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad anywhere while browsing the web.
Adblock Plus only has one configuration item that I messed with – an option to allow ‘unintrusive ads’. I don’t want to see anything so I disabled this on the ‘Filter Preferences’ screen. To get to this screen in FireFox click the icon in the lower left corner of the screen. It is a stop-sign-shaped icon with ‘ABP’ in the center.
Don’t take privacy for granted. It is a very valuable and quickly dying part of being a human being, but like most things it’s only going away because we don’t actively pursue it. The Internet is very dangerous but it doesn’t have to be. Be proactively thinking about everything you do on the Internet…..these companies are certainly thinking about you!