How do companies track us online? Is it possible to avoid this?

On April 24, President Joe Biden signed a bill that could potentially ban TikTok in the United States if the app doesn’t transfer its American operations to a U.S.-based company. The primary concern driving this ultimatum is data privacy.

Like any social media app, TikTok collects a significant amount of user data and personal information. The fact that TikTok is a Chinese company heightens concerns that it might be compelled to share this data with the Chinese government.

You might think, “I don’t have a TikTok account, so this doesn’t affect me.” However, the modern internet is more interconnected than ever before. Data brokers can embed cookies, web scripts, and tracking pixels in unrelated websites and even in emails to collect your browsing history and other valuable data.

TikTok isn’t the only company under scrutiny. Meta* is perhaps the most notorious example, openly disclosing how it tracks user data and presenting it as a useful web analytics tool.

These examples show how vulnerable you can be to tracking by services like TikTok and Facebook*, even if you’ve never used them. Fortunately, there are tools available that can detect when you’re being tracked, identify who is tracking you, and block these trackers to secure your online experience. This article will discuss these tools in detail.

How Do Companies Track Us?

Currently, there are two primary methods companies use to track internet users: cookies, which are on their way out, and tracking pixels, which are taking their place.

Cookies are small packets of information that allow websites to remember your login details, site preferences like dark mode, and other personalized settings. However, third-party cookies can track your browsing sessions and other information to identify you and your interests, which can then be sold to data brokers for targeted advertising.

While cookies are the most obvious way companies can track you, and consent requests can be annoying, at least they are upfront. Agreeing to cookie usage puts you in a potentially vulnerable position, even if it’s voluntary.

Tracking pixels work similarly to cookies but use images instead of text. Companies can hide transparent or otherwise invisible pixels on your screen, which ping the server when your browser loads them, allowing companies to track your website interactions.

Legislation on tracking pixels is currently sparse, meaning users who rely on government measures to limit cookies are back to square one regarding data protection.

Some sites also come with their own scripts, which can delve much deeper than cookies ever did.

How Can You Tell If You’re Being Tracked?

One advantage of tracking pixels and scripts being integrated into website code is that you can see them if you know where to look. By right-clicking on a webpage and selecting “Inspect Element,” you can see the tags for tracking pixels. This method works in Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge, while Safari requires enabling developer settings first.

However, not everyone has the time or expertise to manually inspect website code. Fortunately, there are tools that automate this process and provide context for what you’re looking at.

Tools for Detecting Online Trackers

Feroot PageScanner is a free Chrome extension that quickly alerts you when your data is being tracked. While it doesn’t block trackers, it provides detailed information on active trackers, including who manages them and their purposes.

Ghostery is another extension that not only detects but also blocks trackers and unwanted ads. It offers less detailed information compared to PageScanner, so using both together can be beneficial.

uBlock Origin is an open-source ad blocker known for its precision. It blocks elements on any site but provides less information about trackers compared to other tools.

Privacy Badger focuses on trackers more than ads. It learns to block trackers based on your browsing habits and is also open-source.

VPN Solutions

VPN services are another option for protecting your privacy online. A VPN hides your browsing data by filtering it through other sources, masking your IP address. Paid VPNs usually offer better security, no logs, high speeds, and support multiple devices. Free VPNs may be less secure and have limitations on traffic and speed.

Conclusion

In today’s digital world, protecting your privacy and personal data is crucial. Tech companies use various methods to track your activity and collect valuable information, primarily for marketing purposes. While these practices are often hidden, specialized tools, browser extensions, and services can help you detect and block trackers, ensuring a safer online experience.

Being aware of potential privacy risks and knowing how to safeguard your digital space are essential for maintaining the privacy of your personal data. With the tools discussed in this article, you can create a reliable shield against misuse and unauthorized use of your information by malicious actors and unscrupulous companies.

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