Monday, September 12, 2011

Invisible Online - Five ways to avoid being tracked on the Web

Web spies are getting stealthier and stealthier. Recently they’ve been caught peering into our browser histories to determine the sites we’ve visited, even in so-called privacy mode with cookies disabled, as Dan Goodin described earlier this month on The Register.

Many of the companies whose sites were discovered using the technique claimed to have had no idea and immediately decried the spying. Julia Angwin reported on many of these surprise responses on the Wall Street Journal’s Technology site.

If the owners of the spying sites aren’t even aware of the activity, what are unsuspecting visitors to do? Well, you could wait for the government to take action, as CNET’s Declan McCullogh reports in the Privacy Inc. blog.

Or you could rely on the online advertising industry to police itself, despite the marketers’ inability to determine which spying practices violate their own guidelines, which Julia Angwin describes on the WSJ’s Digits blog.

Personally, I’d rather take matters into my own hands. Here are five ways to reduce the chances that your browsing habits are being recorded.

Block ads and super-cookies before they can download

Last May, Microsoft and Adobe announced that deleting cookies in Internet Explorer 8 and 9 would also delete the long-lasting Flash cookies, or local shared objects (LSOs). The long-awaited change requires Flash 10.3 or later, as Microsoft’s Andy Ziegler explains on the IEBlog.

Add-ons for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome go a step further by allowing you to prevent LSOs and other tracking files from being downloaded along with a Web page’s content. I first wrote about Giorgio Maone’s free NoScript add-on for Firefox in a post from January 2008. The extension lets you block Flash and Javascript on a site-by-site and source-by-source basis. I can’t think of a reason why Firefox users would not use this add-on.

NettiCat’s free BetterPrivacy extension for Firefox lets you decide which Flash cookies to allow and delete. The program can be set to notify you whenever a new LSO is stored, delete the default Flash Player cookie, and even set a keyboard shortcut for erasing LSOs. By default, BetterPrivacy removes all Flash cookies when you close Firefox.

BetterPrivacy options screen 
The free BetterPrivacy add-on for Firefox automatically 
deletes Flash cookies when the browser closes. 
(Credit: screenshot by Dennis O’Reilly)
Another great Web-privacy tool that’s available for both Firefox and Google Chrome is AdBlock Plus, which not only removes ads from sites but also lets you customize its 40-plus filter subscriptions for ads and known malware domains. Developer Wladimir Palant suggests a $5 contribution. The version for Firefox is available on the Mozilla add-ons site, and the one for Chrome can be downloaded from Chrome Web store.

Improve security and browsing speed in one fell swoop

If OpenDNS isn’t the worst-kept secret on the Web, it should be. The service replaces your existing Domain Name System service with one that’s both faster and safer. The ad-supported OpenDNS Basic for home users can be upgraded to the ad-free OpenDNS VIP ($10 per year). There’s a version of K-12 schools and one for organizations.

OpenDNS works by using a network of Web-cache servers that put site content closer to your browser to minimize the number of hops required to deliver the data. The servers also filter dangerous or inappropriate content based on the criteria you select. For more on the service, see this post from May 2010 (scroll to “Filter potentially dangerous sites”).                  More