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

With 90% of websites using at least one tracking script, it is imperative to know how to lower your digital footprint.
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When was the last time you surfed the internet without pesky ads popping up? Chances are you experience countless, targeted ads while conducting your day-to-day activities online. Are you wondering why that new car you peeked at online is following you around the internet for the rest of the day? The answer is targeted advertising. It is a lucrative business, with the U.S. spending $134.6 billion dollars for online ad spend in just one year alone.[1]

A part of that advertising budget is for internet tracking, or personalized offers just for you based on your previous webpage visits. A contemporary tracking study highlighted that Google trackers exist on up to 80% of all websites globally.[2]

For many people, online privacy is the “new gold” — keeping your website browsing private is considered a form of wealth. This article explains how trackers work and how to stay as anonymous as possible while roaming Web 2.0.

In this article
What are trackers?
How do websites track your online activity?
Why do websites track your browsing activity?
Tips for keeping your digital footprint anonymous
Internet tracking FAQs
Bottom line

What are trackers?

A tracker is a website script that gathers data points about your clicking habits, general preferences, and browsing experience as you interact with a website. The first tracker was implemented on the world wide web in 1996, and the first study of tracking on the internet emerged around 2005.

A detailed internet tracking study from USENIX, a nonprofit that conducts research on computing systems and operating systems, gives an overview of some of the elements involved in tracking. A few key findings are listed below:

  • The more time spent online positively correlates to encountering more trackers, yet you will encounter the most web trackers in your first two hours of browsing each day.
  • Users will come across an average of 177 trackers per week.
  • Larger companies like Google or Facebook know about half of the browsing history of most users.[3]

How do websites track your online activity?

Websites perform internet tracking in many different ways, and you may be unaware of these tracking methods when visiting a website.

Cookies

One way to track web activity is through first-party or third-party cookies. A first-party cookie only tracks your activity on its website, like remembering the items that are in your shopping cart. Most people can expect that a website may track things like where you left off on the site or the location of your PC for localized items like weather updates.

Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies do not always originate with websites you directly visit, and you may be unaware of which sites are conducting web tracking. Scripts can come from sites you have never visited. This type of internet tracking collects and shares information without your consent. These tracking technologies may continue to follow you even if you navigate to a different website.

Tracking links

A tracking link adds parameters to your website and tracks the effectiveness of marketing campaigns. These links can be set up to track clicks, the source of the traffic, the content, and more.

Web beacons

Web beacons are small images, even just the size of a pixel, that are commonly referred to as tags. These images download either when a webpage loads or an email is opened, with both actions alerting a company that you viewed their content.

Browser fingerprinting

Companies may have a full “digital fingerprint” gathered on you, which can include things like your browser selection, operating system, plug-ins, language, and hardware configurations. The aforementioned USENIX study found that 99% of the 52,000 Firefox users studied had a unique fingerprint.[3]

Information collected using these techniques enables the website owner and other third parties to create a unique profile about you while studying your internet habits.

Can Facebook track your offline activity?

Yes, Facebook can track user activity while you are offline. The social platform can track website visits without your knowledge. Facebook lets you disable some of the information it gathers on you via its app settings. You can also read our guide on how to minimize Facebook tracking.

Why do websites track your browsing activity?

Companies primarily track your internet browsing so they can analyze website performance and target specific advertising to you. After your information is collected, companies create statistical data models regarding your online activity.

You may have noticed some of your personalized ads come from social media websites. When you visit a news website, for example, the site could make a request to your Facebook account to load “like” data. The overall outcome is that Facebook learned about your visit to the news website and can now provide specific ads to you. The USENIX study showed that Facebook alone could increase its personal profile details on someone by 64% simply by maintaining a Google collaboration.[3]

Because the methods of tracking have only increased over time, more sophisticated methods of collaboration amongst trackers have also increased. Cookie sharing/synchronization is one of the most common methods, which creates third-party, information-sharing systems. The most popular trackers can gain 5% to 10% more user data through collaborations, with a gain increase of up to 50% in some places if multiple trackers opt to share your data.[3]

Is being tracked necessary for being online?

Ninety percent of websites now include at least one tracking script. Just the event of finding out how much you are tracked online can be a wake-up call for you! One study found that awareness of online targeting worsened individuals’ attitudes toward the advertised product and reduced the probability of a purchase.[4]

While it may not be possible to stop all tracking, you may want to research the websites you visit to find out what cookie and tracking policies they have in place. If you are uncomfortable with what you discover, then it is time for you to take action.

Tips for keeping your digital footprint anonymous

You can take precautions to limit your digital footprint on the web, including:

  • Clearing your cookies: Clearing your cookies frequently is a good practice because these files store your search history and accumulate until they are cleared out. If you are able to clear them daily, you are taking a step toward limiting your digital footprint.
  • Using privacy-centered browsers: Using a web browser that has an anti-fingerprinting policy is beneficial, as it can block third-party requests from organizations that frequently engage in fingerprinting. Mozilla Firefox has a standard setting for fingerprint blocking, so you don’t have to enable this feature yourself. Apple’s Safari browser has a fingerprinting defense mode that turns on automatically. Additionally, Brave and Tor browsers were technologically created to be sensitive to fingerprinting.
  • Applying network-level protection: On a network level, consider switching to a more secure operating system like Linux, a company that takes a smaller window of time to resolve security issues compared to other operating systems. You could also consider using an anonymous proxy server or a virtual private network (VPN) to mask your network IP address.
  • Using ad blockers: Ad blocker browser extensions can block pop-up ads and web tracking, although some ad blockers do allow “acceptable ads” from companies that pay to bypass through the ad blocker. Ironically, internet users who use an ad blocker were found to spend about 28% more time browsing online than those who did not use one.[5]

Internet tracking FAQs


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What does a tracking link look like?

A tracking link is a unique URL that can be used to monitor the number of clicks on a website or marketing campaign. There is an extra space to add unique specifications at the end of the URL. These specifications can differ, depending on what the company wants to track.


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What are the benefits of online tracking?

The benefits of online tracking are primarily for companies. Companies can develop a better understanding of customer bases, create tracking and analyzing marketing campaigns, and potentially increase sales.


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What is a “do not track request with your browser traffic”?

You can modify your browser setting to send requests to websites to not use web tracking to collect your personal data. Even if you send this request, many websites will still collect your browsing information, especially a browser like Google Chrome.

Bottom line

Internet tracking creates a unique fingerprint of your hardware and online activities and can happen even when you are offline. How long will third-party trackers be allowed to operate within the U.S.? The answer centers around the GDPR and privacy laws.

The GDPR is a privacy regulation protecting citizens of the European Union (EU) and individuals that do business with companies in the EU, regardless of where you are located in the world. This law is big on data protection, including cybersecurity measures, and five U.S. states have now used the GDPR as inspiration for their own data privacy laws. These laws go into effect in 2023.

Until U.S. citizens are offered more data protection, consider taking precautions to prevent aggressive tracking while online.

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Author Details
Robin Moore is a freelance writer and editor specializing in blockchain technology, including wallet security and data privacy. She is the current Managing Editor for Watcher.Guru, a startup blockchain and finance news publication with 1.7 million followers on Twitter. Robin has also been the lead content editor with Genfinity.IO, another startup blockchain research publication. Before entering the Web3 space, she was a business analyst within the oil and gas industry. When she is not offering advice on the best ways to protect data privacy, she is hiking, doing yoga, or networking with her Web3 family on crypto-Twitter.

Citations

[1] Leading digital advertising markets worldwide in 2020

[2] Tracking The Trackers 2020: Web tracking's opaque business model of selling users 

[3] When Sally Met Trackers: Web Tracking From the Users’ Perspective

[4] Raise the Curtains: The Effect of Awareness About Targeting on Consumer Attitudes and Purchase Intentions

[5] The Effect of Ad Blocking on User Engagement with the Web