How Your Web Activity Is Tracked

(and how to stop it)

Our activity online is rarely known only to us - the sites we visit, the adverts we click, and what we do on each page are all often being recorded by someone somewhere.

Tracking your web usage

Most of this is simply by advertisers who want to target their ads to the right people, as well as website owners wanting to learn how their sites are used. But whilst most tracking and monitoring is non-malicious, and those doing it don't know who you are, it can still seem a bit creepy.

So who is doing this, how, and how can we block it?

Jump straight to topic:


Who's tracking my web activity?

Many different groups are interested in learning what we do online, whether that's website owners, anti-fraud tools, or advertisers. The same techniques used by these can also be used by less savoury groups too, such as fraudsters or the government.

Advertisers

How often have you visited a website, only to see adverts for that website regularly popping up for the next few days?

Many adverts are served up by large advertising networks. They know whenever you visit a page with their adverts, allowing them to build up a profile of your interests and to target adverts more effectively. This is known as "behavioural advertising".

Website owners

Almost all websites use analytics to help identify improvements. This includes looking at how many visits the site gets, how users found it, the order of pages viewed, & which pages are popular.

BeCyberSafe.com uses Google Analytics for this (our Privacy page has full details including how to opt out). We only see where users come from, the pages visited, & a few other basics - we don't get to see anything else (nor would we want to!).

Online stores

Shops want to know what you're looking at to help them sell you more goods - an obvious example of this is Amazon's personalised recommendations feature.

But as well as monitoring your clicks, some shops go further and profile users to adjust prices. Orbitz were once found to be showing pricier hotel options to Mac users, whilst Staples varied the prices of goods based on where the customer lived.

Fraud-prevention tools

Websites that involve financial transactions, such as shopping or banking, will often use some form of anti-fraud tracking.

This will typically use website code provided by 3rd parties, such as ThreatMetrix or Experian. They can work in several ways, for example by analysing how web forms are filled out (fraudsters are generally quicker & less random than real-world users).

Your device may also be 'fingerprinted' to check if it's been seen in a fraud case before. This works by taking many anonymous data points such as screen size, system time, & browser, and combining these to create a unique 'fingerprint'.

Spyware

Spyware are unwanted applications that monitor what you're doing. They're like viruses in the way they infect your computer (antivirus should catch them), but with their purpose being to earn money, for example by redirecting your web searches.

Governments

Governments will also sometimes monitor people's internet activities. Whilst this is often only in criminal cases (and with judiciary oversight), some governments go much further - it's known for example that China monitor the internet usage of their citizens, censoring free speech and limiting the websites they can view.


How do they do it?

Computers are not simple things - there are many methods by which we can be tracked on the internet. Some of the main ones are described below:

Cookies

These are small text files saved on your computer - they're regularly used by sites to store information such as your shopping cart or to record that you're logged on.

"Super Cookies"

Some sites store data in other ways too, such as in images or your browsing history. These are known as "Super Cookies" as they're often difficult to delete.

IP addresses

An IP address is an identifier for your device - it's like a street address for the internet. It can sometimes reveal roughly where you are in the world too.

Website code

Code running on a webpage can do all sorts of things, such as to call home with certain details, or to create a unique fingerprint of your web browser or computer.

Tracking bugs

These are tiny 1-pixel images that track when you've visited a page. Marketing emails use them to see when you've opened the email.

Logged-in activity

Whenever you login to a website they'll gather data as you use the site, using this (for example) to suggest other items to buy.

User Agent

A "User Agent" is a description of the web browser you use. As this can be highly detailed it can be used to track you as you browse.

HTTP Referrer

When you visit a website your PC tells it where you've just come from; this is known as a "HTTP Referrer". Details within this can sometimes identify you.

Internet infrastructure

Monitoring raw data is normally only done by governments; this for example is how China knows & controls what their citizens see online.


What can I do to avoid being tracked?

CCTV camera

Ultimately it's very difficult to avoid being tracked - there are so many ways in which our computers can be identified and our activities tracked. It's worth being aware too that some aspects of tracking - such as fraud detection - are critical for a webpage to work; by opting out of (or blocking) tracking you may end up not being able to use certain websites.

Below we've detailed some of the things you can do - both simple and advanced - to keep your web activity as private as possible.


1) Configure the major websites

Many websites will record what you do whilst you're logged in to them. Sadly this is nothing we can control for most sites, but for a few of the huge websites we can at least tell them not to track us as we visit other websites.

If you have an account with any of these websites below then follow the link and check your personal preferences:


2) Check your browser settings

Your web browser (the program which you access the internet from) is the main gatekeeper between you and the web - it has a lot of power to control what information websites can see about you, and whether or not you can be tracked.

a) General browser settings

Web browser icons

The browser menu is where you'll find a lot of privacy-related options. Here, for example, you'll be able to specify whether your browser can send data back to it's own manufacturer (such as Microsoft, Google, or Apple), as well as the types of 'cookies' (small text files) that websites are allowed to write.

You should go through the settings for your browser and restrict permissions down to only those you're happy to give. General settings are shown in the boxes below, with specific details for configuring your browser below that.

  • Block third party cookies - these are cookies written by sites other than the one you're visiting, such as advertisers.
  • Set your browser to block (or ask before using) your location, camera, and microphone.
  • If your browser has it, enable any tracking protection and send "Do not track requests" (different browsers describe this slightly differently). Many websites ignore any Do Not Track requests but it's still worth setting for those that do honour it.
  • Check if you're logged in to your browser, eg with your Google account when using Chrome. Some people find this useful - eg you can access your bookmarks from other devices - but it does mean some data is shared externally.

  • Disable any options that send usage statistics or other data back to the browser manufacturer or search engines.

You can find the options for setting these in your browser by clicking the "Show me how" link:

b) Clear your browser cache

Once you've updated your browser settings, it's a good idea to delete any data that's already been stored so that you're starting from fresh. This can include temporary files, your search history, cookies, and many other saved items.

Whilst most browsers allow you to keep data from your favourite sites, be aware that any passwords you've saved might be deleted too (ie you may have to re-enter some passwords when you next visit these websites).

c) Use private mode in browsers

All browsers these days offer a private mode for maximum protection; this effectively is the same as setting all the privacy settings shown above - and more - to the maximum. The different browsers all vary in exactly how they work, and while they'll generally ensure that no site data, cookies, or history are saved, they will still let you save any downloaded files.

Be aware too that these browser modes do not make you anonymous on the internet - they may block some forms of tracking, but your internet provider will still be able to see which websites you're visiting.

d) Browser extensions

Another option to increase your privacy would be to install a browser extension that's been specifically designed to prevent websites & advertisers from tracking you. These are pieces of software that sit in your browser, watching the websites you visit & giving you full control of what they're doing.

Notable ones include Ghostery and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger.

But whilst some browser extensions can be useful (as seen above), extensions can be abused by criminals or unscrupulous advertisers to spy on you and watch everything you do on the web. These rogue extensions may advertise themselves as something useful or fun in order to persuade people to install them, but actually are really designed to spy on users instead. If you do use extensions then only ever install ones from companies you know and trust.

It's also worth quickly checking that no extensions have been installed that you don't recognise. It's unlikely, but it's worth a check - click below to see how.

Note that Safari on an iPhone doesn't allow extensions.


3) Use an alternative search engine

Duck Duck Go logo

Many people are suspicious of Google & Microsoft Bing for what data they store about us and our searches. Whilst they allow you to set your privacy preferences (see the pages for Google and Bing), many people still prefer to use other search engines that claim to not record anything at all.

Perhaps the best known of these is Duck Duck Go, an extremely popular search engine that gives results just as good as any other. You can visit their website directly, or even set it as your default search engine in your browser.


4) Advanced methods

Even if you set your browser privacy settings to the max and don't use a search engine that logs your activity, your internet activity can still be tracked (see, we told you it's difficult to avoid all tracking!)

By this point, if you want to go even further with disguising your activities, then it's probably not advertisers who you're worried about snooping on you but either criminals or maybe your own government. And whilst most governments would only ever use these powers for the prevention or investigation of criminal or terrorist activity, there are some countries who monitor their citizens as a matter of routine.

a) Virtual machines

Whilst the browser settings described above will stop most websites from tracking you, a more thorough method is to combine these with using a "Virtual Machine". This is a virtual computer that you run from inside your computer (it can be a weird concept to think about!), and which you reset to new every time you go online.

This means that any tracking elements that a sneaky website manages to install on your computer will be completely erased, preventing them from tracking you between sessions (although note that if you log into any website you can still be tracked from your account).

Common virtual machines (sometimes just called "VMs") are made by VMWare & Microsoft.

b) Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

VPN tunnel

So far on this page all the advice has been on preventing websites from tracking you. But there's another way you can be monitored - your internet connection could be tapped and your data read.

This is where a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can be useful. These create a secure tunnel between your computer & some other location on the internet, making it difficult for websites to identify where you really are. VPNs also prevent anyone from being able to intercept and view your activity too, for example to protect your data from criminals whilst using public wifi.

When a VPN is combined with all the browser settings above you'll be about as private on the internet as most people ever need to be. If you're interested in using a VPN, including how they work, what they do, and how to get one, then take a look at our full guide to VPNs.

c) Tor

ToR Project logo

A step beyond using just a regular VPN is to use something called "Tor" (an abbreviation of "The Onion Router", a name which is a reference to how it works). This tunnels your data & bounces it through thousands of computers all around the world in order to hide your identity.

Originally developed by the US government, it is now (somewhat ironically) heavily used by criminals to protect their identities whilst accessing the "dark web", a place where they gather to trade stolen credit cards, sell drugs & weapons, and even to traffic people.

And despite the large criminal element that use it, ToR can massively benefit many ordinary users too - for example by helping people in oppressed countries to access the internet safely.

For more information on Tor see the Tor Project website (note that this page may be blocked by some internet providers).


Have any feedback on this page? Let us know - [email protected]