Free Tools to Keep Those Creepy Online Ads From Watching You
SAY you’re doing a web search on something like the flu. The next thing you know, an ad for a flu remedy pops up on your web browser, or your video streaming service starts playing a commercial for Tylenol.
The content of those ads is no coincidence. Digital ads are able to follow people around the Internet because advertisers often place invisible trackers on the websites you visit. Their goal is to collect details on everywhere you go on the Internet and use that data to serve targeted ads to your computer, smartphone and connected television.
This global commercial surveillance of consumers is poised to become more extensive as tech companies expand into the Internet of Things, a category that includes wearable computers and connected home appliances like smart thermostats and refrigerators. Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Google can already follow users from device to device because people log in to their services with the same IDs on various gadgets.
For other marketing companies, tracking people on multiple Internet-connected devices has become a holy grail. The process is complex, because some lack the direct relationship with people that the giant tech companies already have. Only about 6 percent of marketers can reliably track a customer on all of that customer’s devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. But advertisers are working toward the goal.
“Our privacy is completely under assault with all these connected devices,” said Jeremiah Grossman, the founder of WhiteHat Security, a web security firm.
“我们的隐私受到这些联网设备的彻底侵害。”网络安全公司白帽安全(WhiteHat Security)的创始人耶利米·格罗斯曼(Jeremiah Grossman)说。
So what better time to get a head start on defending yourself against web snoops (as if email trackers, which this column covered last year, weren’t annoying enough already)? Many companies offer tools to help obscure your digital footprints while you’re browsing the web. We researched and tested four tracker blockers and found their results varied widely. In the end, the app Disconnect became our anti-tracking tool of choice.
Here’s how web tracking works: In general, targeting individuals with digital ads involves a sophisticated ecosystem of third parties — like online advertising networks, data brokers and analytics companies — that compile information on consumers.
When you visit websites, these companies typically pick out your browser or phone using technologies like cookies, which contain unique alphanumeric identification tags that can enable trackers to identify your activities as you move from site to site. To sell ads delivered to certain categories of consumers, like suburban singles looking for romance, companies may sync these ID tags to pinpoint individuals.
The downside is, your browsing history may contain sensitive information about your health concerns, political affiliations, family problems, religious beliefs or sexual habits.
“More than just being creepy, it’s a huge violation of privacy,” said Cooper Quintin, a privacy advocate for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit that also offers the anti-tracking tool Privacy Badger. “People need to be able to read things and do things and talk about things without having to worry that they’re being watched or recorded somewhere.”
“这不仅仅令人毛骨悚然，也是对隐私的巨大侵犯，”电子前哨基金会的隐私拥护者库珀·昆汀(Cooper Quintin)说。电子前哨基金会是一家保护数字权利的非营利机构，它也提供反跟踪工具Privacy Badger。“人们应该能够阅读、做事、交谈而不必担忧他们在某些地方受到监视和记录。”
We took a close look at four free privacy tools: Ghostery, Disconnect, RedMorph and Privacy Badger. We tested them with the Google Chrome browser on the top 20 news websites, including Yahoo News, CNN, The Huffington Post and The New York Times.
我们调查了四款免费隐私工具：Ghostery，Disconnect，RedMorph和Privacy Badger。我们用谷歌Chrome浏览器在二十家顶尖新闻网站上测试了它们，包括雅虎新闻(Yahoo News)，有线电视新闻网(CNN)，赫芬顿邮报(The Huffington Post)和纽约时报。
The tracker busters generally work in similar ways. You download and install an add-on for a web browser like Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. The anti-tracking companies each compile a list of known web domains that serve trackers or show patterns of tracking services. Then when someone connects to a website, the tools prevent the browser from loading any element that matches their blacklist.
Ghostery, a popular tracker blocker, was the most difficult to set up. When you install it, it asks you to manually select the trackers you want to block. Our problem with that approach is that there are hundreds of trackers, and most consumers probably won’t recognize most of them, putting the onus on users to research which specific services they might wish to block.
Scott Meyer, the chief executive of Ghostery, said this had been a deliberate design choice. When trackers are blocked, parts of websites may not function, so it is less confusing to let users experiment and decide which ones to block on their own, he said.
“We block nothing by default,” he said. “That’s in direct contrast to other companies who are saying, ‘We’re turning everything off and let you turn whatever you want back on.’ That’s way too complex for users.”
The tracker blocking tool RedMorph takes the opposite approach. It blocks every tracking signal it can detect and lets people decide which ones to allow. For parents concerned about their children’s Internet use, RedMorph also offers a service to filter out certain sites or block certain swear words or other language they find inappropriate.
“When you go home, you lock the door and you may pull down the shades at night,” said Abhay Edlabadkar, the chief executive of RedMorph. “You should have the same level of privacy control over your Internet activities.”
In our tests, RedMorph was the most thorough with blocking trackers. It blocked 22 of them on USAToday.com, whereas Privacy Badger blocked seven, Disconnect blocked eight and Ghostery detected eight.
But in the process, RedMorph caused the most collateral damage. It blocked some videos on the websites for CNN, USA Today, Bleacher Report, The New York Times and The Daily News. It also broke the recommended reading list on Business Insider and a Twitter box on BuzzFeed. For people who run into issues loading websites, the company offers an “Easy Fix” button to stop blocking a website’s trackers, but that’s hardly an ideal solution when it causes so many websites to malfunction. Mr. Edlabadkar of RedMorph said the tool was blocking some videos or recommended reading lists because they were loading only after a tracker had been loaded first.
与此同时，RedMorph也带来了最严重的附加损害。它屏蔽了CNN，USA Today，Bleacher Report，纽约时报和每日新闻(The Daily News)上的一些视频。它还屏蔽了商业内幕(Business Insider)上的推荐阅读列表和BuzzFeed上的推特(Twitter)框。对加载网站遇到问题的人，该公司提供了“轻松修复”按钮以停止屏蔽网站上的追踪器，但当它造成大量网站无法正常工作时，这绝非理想的解决方案。RedMorph的埃德拉巴德卡先生称该工具之所以屏蔽了一些视频和推荐阅读列表是因为它们只在追踪器加载后才能加载。
That leaves Privacy Badger and Disconnect. Privacy Badger detects third-party domains that users are connecting with when they’re loading a website and blocks those domains only if they are determined to be tracking you. Its widget shows sliding bars of trackers it has detected. The ones in red are blocked and the green ones are allowed.
这问题留给Privacy Badger和Disconnect解决。Privacy Badger在用户加载网站时检测所连接的第三方域名，只在这些域名决定跟踪你时才屏蔽它们。它的小窗口显示探测到的追踪器拖动条。红色为屏蔽的，绿色为允许的。
“We really focus on privacy rather than blocking ads that are done in a respectful way,” said Casey Oppenheim, the chief executive of Disconnect. “It’s important we have the ability for publishers to survive and make money. I think there’s a middle ground.”
In the end, we picked Disconnect as our favorite tool because it was the easiest to understand. It organizes the types of tracking requests it is blocking into different categories: advertising, analytics, social media and content.
Mr. Grossman of WhiteHat Security also tested tracking blockers and chose Disconnect for similar reasons. He breaks his online activities into two separate web browsers to make himself more difficult to track: On one browser, he does everyday tasks like reading news articles; on the other browser he logs into accounts that are linked to his personal identity, like online banking sites and Amazon.
But Mr. Grossman said that in the broad arms race between consumers and advertisers, the advertisers always find some way to outmaneuver us.
“We’re talking megabillion-dollar industries totally designed to track you online,” he said. “That’s their mission in life.”