Get Smart On the Web

The SmartOn Series is like your Internet owner’s manual: the place to learn the most useful intel and tips from Mozilla policy peeps and programmers.

Ask yourself

  1. Do you feel in control of your personal information online?

  2. Do you know what a cookie is (no, not the delicious kind)?

  3. Have you ever wondered why some content, like ads, seems to follow you around?

What is tracking?

Every time we go online, we leave behind traces of our activity. They’re often called our “digital footprints” and for good reason, because tracking is sort of like re-tracing our steps. But our digital footprints reveal more about us than where we’ve been — everything from our preferences to our identities.

To get a good look at how tracking works, be sure to check out the first episode of Brett Gaylor’s documentary series, Do Not Track.

Tracking in action

Let’s imagine a typical day online: you start by checking emails, maybe share a fun article you just read. At lunch, you check showtimes for a movie a friend recommended on Facebook and look up prices for some new camping gear you’ve had your eye on.

That’s only a few sites, but what’s happening behind the scenes is that many more “third-parties” — companies that are separate from the sites you’re visiting — are seeing and recording your activity.

So when you begin seeing recommended articles about that movie, or ads for that camping gear, later in the day, it’s no coincidence.

Tracking for personalization

The websites we visit will often collect data about us to better personalize our experiences with them. The information they gather through analytics can be used to make navigating their site easier for us or to present us more relevant offers. They also use cookies — small data files placed in our browsers — to remember language preferences or the contents in a shopping cart.

Tracking without permission

Many websites we visit contain hidden third parties — such as data brokers, affiliate networks and advertising networks — who use cookies, and other data tracking methods, to collect information about our browsing habits without our consent. While tracking can be helpful, there can’t be a healthy trade-off between the value it provides and the data it collects without transparency.

Going beyond the Web

Online tracking is just one part of a larger ecosystem of data collection. Within this ecosystem, anonymized online data can be merged with personally identifiable information about you (information that you may have volunteered on a form, in an app or that was collected offline) to build a surprisingly detailed profile of you.

These profiles have the potential to interfere with your life offline, and can contribute to unfair practices by being improperly used for price discrimination, decreased creditworthiness, more expensive insurance coverage or unfavorable employment or health reports. While these instances are not widespread yet, they do illustrate the potential depths of what is happening behind the scenes and outside of our control.

Be the boss of your personal info

There are many ways you can take back and maintain control of your online activity. Here are some important tips, hand-picked by Mozilla experts.

Think deeper

A lot goes on behind the scenes of the Internet. The more you know, the better you can decide what your information is worth to you.

Understand the hidden cost of free

We all like the appeal of “free” apps and online services but if you’re not paying for them, someone is, and what they’re buying may be the data you leave behind. Decide whether the information you share is worth the service you are receiving.

Shine a light on trackers

If you’re a Firefox user, be sure to check out Lightbeam, a simple and insightful add-on that visually graphs the depth of your browsing activity, including parts that are not usually visible to you.

Think before you click

When you see an element on a page, such as a “like” or social media login button, that’s an indication that some information has already been collected about you — clicking on it will share even more.

Choose choice

It’s easy to overlook the access to personal data that we might offer through online accounts and apps, but most offer settings that give you choice and control.

Delete your unused accounts

Your data might get sold when a service or app shuts down. If you don’t use it, close it.

Protect your profiles

Some services you interact directly with let you control the information they have about you. Look at any opportunity to change or control your profile, if offered. For example, you can manage your profile and preferences for Google, Yahoo! and Facebook ads, and even edit data that’s been collected about you by Acxiom, one of the world’s largest marketing data brokers.

Don’t forget about apps

Some mobile apps you install can access a lot of information about you, including details not necessarily related to the service they provide. Control your privacy and location settings on iOS and Android.

Look to your browser

Most Web browsers offer a set of privacy features designed to give you control. Here are a few key ones that you can make use of.

Do Not Track

With this feature enabled, your browser will tell social sharing services, publishers, analytics providers, advertisers and third party networks that you want to opt-out of tracking.

Mozilla was the first company to include a Do Not Track feature when it was added to Firefox in 2011. Since then, it has been adopted by most major browsers, though many companies on the receiving end of the requests are still not honoring them. Efforts are being made by Web advocacy groups to have this changed.

Learn how to enable Do Not Track in Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer/Edge and Safari.

Private Browsing

Use Private Browsing to keep from having certain items about your browsing activity locally saved. These include your history, searches and cookies.

Here is how to use private browsing:

Additional privacy settings

Many browsers offer a range of privacy settings that will help you stay in control. Explore them here:

Share your tracking smarts

Now that you have some tools and the knowledge to protect yourself, spread the word to friends. The more everybody knows about tracking and how to protect their online data, the better off we’ll all be. Feel free to use the questions below to keep the conversation going!

  1. What privacy settings do you use in your browser? Tweet this

  2. How much are you willing to share about yourself in exchange for personalized content? Tweet this

  3. Have you ever used private browsing? Tweet this