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Internet Tracking: How Much Am I Tracked and What Can I Do About It?

Have you ever wondered how much of your online activity is being monitored and recorded? As you browse the web and apps, a vast and murky industry is tracking your every click to build detailed dossiers of your interests, habits and movements.

This guide will examine how invasive internet tracking really is, what‘s at stake for your privacy, and what you can do to take back some control. I‘ll be speaking to you directly, using "you" to make this feel like a one-on-one conversation about your privacy. My goal is to bring transparency to internet tracking and then equip you with some ways to limit it. Let‘s dive in!

The Shocking Scale of Online Tracking

The prevalence of trackers online reached shocking levels long ago. A 2021 study found the average website connects to over 150 third-party tracking or analytics domains. Another report showed the top 500 sites load over 400 tracking scripts each on average.

92% of the top 1,000 sites deploy Google trackers specifically. Facebook trackers are present on over 40% of sites.

According to research by the USENIX Association, internet users encounter a median of 70 and a maximum of 207 unique trackers per day. Just in the first 2 hours of browsing, you‘ll likely run into 95 different tracking companies.

Over a week, the same study found users dealt with:

  • 5,400 trackers requests
  • 39,000 cookie writes
  • 70,000 other tracker writes to cache or storage
  • 170,000 total tracker writes

That‘s just per user! Billions of people online means trackers are gobbling up endless exabytes of data about browsing patterns, purchases, locations and computing devices worldwide each day.

I think you‘ll agree the scale of monitoring our online lives is staggering.

What Exactly Are They Tracking?

Now you know internet tracking is pervasive, but what exactly are trackers collecting about you? Here‘s a sampling of data points that build up detailed user profiles:

  • Browsing history across sites
  • Searches made on search engines
  • Links clicked in emails and social posts
  • Physical locations throughout the day
  • Devices used, from desktop to mobile
  • Amazon purchases and product searches
  • YouTube videos watched and search queries
  • Ads viewed and clicked
  • Website account usernames
  • Files downloaded
  • News articles read
  • Retail site product views and cart activity
  • Apps accessed and time spent in each

Combining this data provides a 360-degree view of your demographics, interests, habits and movements, tied back to your real-world identity in most cases. These profiles inform the personalized ads and content you see across the internet.

The Techniques Enabling Tracking

Earlier I provided a high-level overview of common tracking methods like cookies, web beacons and fingerprinting. Now let‘s examine some specific techniques in more detail so you really understand how they work:

Cookies – Websites place small text files on your device to recognize your browser on return visits. Google uses cookies to power their advertising network DoubleClick and analytics service Google Analytics. Facebook employs cookies to track your activity for ads and usage analytics even on non-Facebook sites.

Fingerprinting – By detecting subtle configuration differences in browsers, fonts, plugins and systems, sites can assemble a fingerprint to identify devices. Unlike cookies, this allows persistent tracking without storing artifacts locally.95% of browsers exhibit unique fingerprinting traits. FingerprintJS is a popular fingerprinting script sites embed.

Location Access – Mobile sites frequently request location permissions or extract approximate locations from IP addresses. Google Maps and weather apps require this, but sharing geo-data also facilitates targeting. Foursquare pioneered using check-in data for hyperlocal ads.

Beacons and Sensor Tracking – Bluetooth and WiFi beacons in stores track devices passing by. Gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers in phones also provide mobility data and can even infer typing activity.

Cross-Device Tracking – Companies stitch together accounts and behavior across your phones, laptops, tablets and TVs using identifiers, account links and machine learning. This prevents privacy via device silos. Facebook‘s 70M household maps connect 2B+ users.

Real-Time Bidding – Ad exchanges offer up display ad slots via real-time auctions to enable targeted ads. Publishers, advertisers and third parties share your data to facilitate bids in just 100ms without your awareness.

Deep Packet Inspection – ISPs analyze unencrypted traffic for information like user email addresses and visited sites. Some ISPs openly sell user data. VPNs can block this technique.

Facial Recognition – Powerful computer vision techniques identify individuals in images and videos using facial biometrics. This allows connecting behavior across the digital and physical worlds.

I know that was a lot of dense information about how you are tracked online. But awareness of the vast tracking ecosystem is the first step toward reclaiming some control. Now that you understand it, let‘s move on to ways to limit it.

Impacts: Why This Matters

Before we get into privacy tips, I want to underscore why online tracking warrants your concern. Unchecked surveillance has many adverse effects:

Loss of Control – User data fuels billions in profits, yet most don‘t grasp the scale nor consent to the data extraction.

Manipulation – Detailed profiles allow content and messaging to be tailored to exploit user vulnerabilities. See Facebook‘s emotional contagion study.

Discrimination – Segmenting users enables differential pricing, access and experiences based on demographics and income levels.

Vulnerability to Hacking/Fraud – Centralized data troves create risky honeypots. Equifax and other breach debacles highlight the mass exposure when consolidated data leaks.

Lack of Transparency – Companies reveal as little as possible about what they track and share. Complex supply chains obscure data flows.

Cross-Context Tracking – Device and cross-device tracking means no online/offline or personal/work contexts remain siloed for privacy.

Anti-Competitive Effects – The dominance of Google, Facebook makes avoiding their pervasive tracking difficult.

Chilling Effects – Observation changes behavior. People self-censor harmless activities due to privacy concerns.

Polls indicate over 70% of people feel unable to control their data. And studies find awareness of internet tracking harms trust in companies and reduces purchasing intent. Clearly this shadowy surveillance economy threatens user autonomy and agency.

Now let‘s explore how you can mitigate tracking and gain back some privacy online.

Fighting Back: Tips to Limit Online Tracking

While internet tracking is difficult to avoid entirely, there are still many steps you can take to minimize it:

Leverage Privacy-Focused Browsers – Browsers like Firefox, Brave and DuckDuckGo make privacy a priority with built-in tracker/ad blocking and fingerprinting defenses. Safari also offers tracking prevention.

Utilize a VPN – Routing your traffic through an encrypted tunnel prevents snooping on browsing activity and hides your IP address/location. Look for "no logs" policies to avoid new risks.

Install Tracker Blockers – Browser extensions like uBlock Origin, Privacy Badger and ClearURLs identify and block trackers across sites and ads.

Monitor Permissions – Be choosy when granting device access like location, microphone and notifications to apps and sites.

Clear Cookies/Data Regularly – Wipe accumulated cookies and site data frequently to avoid persistent profiling. Some browsers automate this.

Disable Third-Party Cookies – Blocking third-party cookies prevents tracking between unaffiliated sites yet maintains core functionality.

Use Privacy-Focused Apps – Replace leaky apps with privacy-centric alternatives like Signal (for messaging), ProtonMail (email), DuckDuckGo (search/browser), and Brave (browser).

Monitor Social Media Settings – Check preferences across social networks like Facebook and Twitter to limit data gathering and turn off personalized ads.

Use an Ad Blocker – Browser extensions like uBlock stop many ads and trackers from loading. But know some ad blockers are now whitelisting "acceptable" ads.

Utilize Email Alias Services – Create anonymous, disposable email addresses when signing up online to avoid linking accounts to your real identity.

Opt-Out of Data Broker Profiles – Marketing data brokers like Acxiom offer opt-outs for inclusion in their databases, but the fragmented process presents hurdles.

Limit Use of Loyalty Programs – Retail loyalty cards provide personal data and extensive purchase histories to brands. Minimize sharing unless you see value in their use.

Evaluate Smart Home Devices – Internet-connected home devices with cameras and mics amplify privacy risks. Understand what data they gather and opt-out where possible.

Use Cash to Limit Physical Tracking – Cash purchases help avoid linking your identity and payment data to your offline activity and location. But carry only what you need.

I know that may seem like a lot of work just to gain back some basic privacy. But taking a few steps here can go a long way to minimizing your exposure. Start with the easiest options first like using privacy-centric browsers and apps. Over time you can adopt more protections until you reach your desired comfort level.

And when it comes to purchases, try factoring in privacy as a feature. Support companies who embed privacy by design into their offerings to sustain businesses incentivized around user well-being, not just data exploitation.

Evolving Laws and Business Models

How we navigate the line between privacy and digital commerce remains a complex and dynamic issue. Public awareness of internet tracking‘s dark sides is growing, fueled by controversies like:

  • Facebook‘sCambridge Analytica scandal
  • Google‘s secret tracking of browsing in Incognito mode
  • ISPs selling user browsing data
  • Broker marketing data leaks
  • Facial recognition controversies

In response, regulators worldwide are enacting more robust privacy laws like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California aimed at curbing abuses. Still, implementing and enforcing regulations consistently across technologies and jurisdictions remains an uphill battle.

Until the ecosystem fundamentally shifts, the onus falls on individual users. But by learning about the techniques used to monitor you online, assessing risks, and taking appropriate tools and precautions, you can successfully reclaim some privacy in your digital life.

I hope this guide has lifted the veil on internet tracking and equipped you to better control your data. Feel free to reach out with any other privacy questions!


Streamr Go

StreamrGo is always about privacy, specifically protecting your privacy online by increasing security and better standard privacy practices.