It’s a common situation – you want to look up something private on the internet that you would rather no one know about. You go to Google Chrome and open up an Incognito tab, finish your business, and close the window. None of your cookies or browsing data was saved, so you’re fine. Completely anonymous, right? Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
How Our Browsing Data is Harvested
To begin, we need to understand just how much data we share online without even realizing it, starting from our browser. When we type a search into Google, our browser shares the operating system of the device, type of browser, system language, installed browser fonts, time zone, screen size and color depth, browser extensions, your user agent string, among many other kinds of data. This data is not only shared with Google, but with any other trackers that may be embedded in the page. When all of this data is complied together, a tracker can then create a unique identity for your browser in a method known as browser fingerprinting. Combined with your public IP address, a completely accurate identifier can be made for you and the browser. This makes tracking cookies unnecessary, and thus deleting cookies in an attempt for privacy becomes completely useless.
Once a tracker has created a unique fingerprint for your browser, any search or web activity you make is tied to you, regardless of whether you are using Incognito mode or not. This can be done across multiple web sites, as trackers exist virtually everywhere on the internet. These trackers then use the information they collect to form a profile about you based on your browsing habits, and use or sell that information to show you targeted ads.
It’s not just your daily internet browsing habits either. Google Maps catalogues every place you have ever been if you have shared your location with them for some reason. Facebook Messenger listens in on your calls. Your Spotify music data is sold to Google and Amazon. All of these invasions of privacy are done with the same goal in mind – to collect as much information on you as possible to form an accurate profile. If you have ever used the internet, you have been tracked.
Why do they do this? Simple. Because it is profitable. In these modern times, our data is more profitable than oil. Its no wonder how Facebook, Google, or Amazon became such tech giants – they exploited their users’ privacy.
“Well so what if they have some data on me? Why should I care?”
You should care in the same way that you would if someone put a camera in your bathroom. Google does not need to know your music taste or what kind of porn you watch in order to show you ads. You turn on Incognito mode to hide your browsing habits from other people, but you are okay to share it with a billion-dollar company?
Furthermore, this level of fingerprinting makes it very possible for people with less-than-great intentions to monitor people’s browsing habits in response to certain stimuli. To illustrate an example, a controversial news article can be displayed, and based on the search history after seeing it, the user’s reaction can be monitored. They can then use this data to further understand how to manipulate the opinions of the people.
“So how can I stop this fingerprinting from happening?”
The first step is to never use Google products or social media, as their number-one function is to gather data. Use DuckDuckGo to search the web, a privacy-oriented search engine that does not track or fingerprint users. For email and cloud storage, CYGO Network offers its own alternatives to Google.
For the next level of online anonymity, use the Tor browser. It has a slower connection speed when browsing the web, but the trade-off is near-complete privacy. Advanced users can also install a Virtual Machine and run the Tails operating system, an OS designed for internet anonymity.
“But I’m too stupid and lazy to figure out how to do all that.”
I can’t help you there.
In this online world, it is extremely difficult to avoid being tracked entirely, especially if you wish to use services like Amazon or YouTube. It is still important, however, to know that it is going on, and that there are resources available to individuals who care about their online fingerprint. What big tech companies are doing right now is borderline illegal; the extent to which our data is harvested is shocking and cannot be covered in just one article. This has to stop, as it infringes on our natural right to privacy, so sand your digital fingerprints.