Add-ons that help browsers block Web trackers

Patrick Marshall

Browsers provide a fairly good first line of defense against Web tracking, but to protect against beacons, JavaScript trackers, and widgets, you need more.

Third-party browser add-ons and applications can provide better defenses against websites that want to follow your online activities.

In last week’s Top Story, “You’re being followed! How to block Web tracking,” I discussed the anti-tracking tools built into the three top browsers: Firefox, Google Chrome, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Most browsers’ tools let you manage the simplest form of tracking — cookies. But trackers use many other techniques for following your online activity, including beacons, bugs, IP-address linking, scripts, tracking pixels, widgets, etc. There are literally hundreds of tracking technologies in use, all designed to record your browsing habits and interests.

Why so much effort to find out what you do online? Targeted advertising is the most common reason. Sites are paid for ad space — but they’re not paid much. So websites use what they know about you to display ads that you’re more likely to click. And the more they know about you, the more effective the ads will be. That’s the theory, at least. It’s why you can go to a shopping site and look up a product, then have ads for that product follow you wherever you go on the Internet.

Most add-on anti-tracking products either attempt to detect scripts, beacons, and other tracking technologies or keep lists of tracking sites to block — and sometimes both. By and large, these products are install-and-forget browser add-ons. Unless you want to exempt a specific tracker from being blocked, you might never even call up the blocking app’s configuration utility.

Tracking blockers also offer another, smaller, bonus: users will often notice slightly faster browser performance. Tracker code typically runs each time you load a webpage. Blocking that code lets your browser move on to more useful things.

A tour of popular anti-tracking products

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-08-08:

Patrick Marshall

About Patrick Marshall

Patrick Marshall is a regular technology columnist for The Seattle Times. He has also written for Government Computer News, InfoWorld, PC World, the Congressional Quarterly, and other publications.