How do hidden web trackers put my privacy at risk?

Filed under DuckDuckGo Q&A

Hidden trackers can follow you around the Internet and watch much of what you do online, but there are simple tools you can use to help block them. Before I get into how to do that, let’s look at what web trackers are, and how exactly they put your privacy at risk.

What are web trackers?

Simply put, web trackers are pieces of code that let companies spy on your online activity across the web, resulting in detailed data profiles about you. These profiles are based in part on what websites you visit, what you click on, and more.

When you visit a website, it’s very likely that first-party and third-party trackers are lurking in the background, monitoring your behavior. These are the two types of tracking you should be aware of. First-party tracking means tracking from the owner of the site you’re visiting or from any of its service providers that are only allowed to use the data as the owner of the site instructs. This type of tracking is usually expected.

However, you’re often also observable on websites by third-party trackers embedded in website code that can use the data they collect for purposes other than just what the website instructs. These third-party trackers are from companies outside of the organization you are visiting and who are not bound strictly as service providers typically are.

You might be surprised to learn that the vast majority (70%+) of websites include such third-party trackers. Lurking behind the scenes, these third-party trackers collect your data for a variety of reasons, including advertising, analytics, and social media.

Websites usually embed these third-party trackers voluntarily into their website code because they are useful to the website in some way. For example, the biggest third-party tracker is Google Analytics, which tells companies what visitors are doing on their sites. However, the way the agreement with Google usually works is that Google can also use this information for other purposes, like for their own targeted advertising and search results, unrelated to the website you are visiting or its company’s purposes. That’s where the bulk of the trouble lies.

How do third-party trackers put my privacy at risk?

Each bit of third-party tracking code embedded in sites and apps can expose pieces of your personal information to the company behind the associated tracker. Further, if the same tracker is littered across many of the websites and apps you use every day, it's easy to see how the company behind it can combine the data its tracker collects to create a massive data collection of a lot of your online activity.

That’s how these trackers (and the companies behind them – the biggest being Google and Facebook) can develop extensive profiles on individuals—even individuals who don’t have accounts with the associated companies—that include browsing, location, search, and purchase history. These profiles can be used to target you for anything, including something we’re all too familiar with: following you around the web with creepy advertising. You’ve probably encountered this yourself, where the advertising you see reflects facts about your life, from events like marriage or a surprise birthday celebration to information like travel plans or medical conditions.

But it’s not just advertising. These same profiles are also often used to decide what content you’re shown, which can put you in a filter bubble. At a societal level, this type of targeting and filter bubble manipulations have contributed to problems like political polarization, ad discrimination, and misinformation online.

How can I prevent getting tracked?

To thwart hidden third-party tracking as described above, you need a tracker blocker. However, unfortunately that isn’t enough by itself because there other ways detailed data profiles can be created about you from your web activity, such as through your search engine and network onlookers (like WiFi snoopers, Internet providers, and other network operators). Addressing one way alone, like just using a web tracker blocker, is like using an umbrella in a hurricane — you're still gonna get wet!

With one download, DuckDuckGo gives you multi-pronged privacy protection including our private search engine, powerful tracker blocker, network protection via enhanced encryption coverage (that helps protect you from network snooping), and more — all in one. It’s the easy button for privacy. You get the same Internet with more privacy (and faster with all that tracking code removed!).

A couple other things to watch out for.

Google, the world’s most popular search engine, also happens to own the biggest tracker network that is used to power advertising across millions of websites and apps. As explained above, a web tracker blocker on its own won’t stop Google from collecting and adding your Google search activity to their data profile on you. That’s why protecting your searches by using DuckDuckGo Search is just as important as using our tracker blocking on other sites.

Another thing to watch out for is ineffective tracker protection. Major desktop browsers are stepping up their privacy promises but still lack effective tracking protection without fiddling with a lot of settings. These browsers typically reduce tracking by restricting trackers (e.g., third-party cookies) after they’ve already loaded on a site you’re visiting. But that’s too late as a lot of significant personal information can be leaked just by loading them. Better solutions (like our tracker blocker) prevent trackers from ever loading at all, which also has the added benefits of reducing WiFi and mobile data consumption and can make webpages load about twice-as-fast.

A private Internet is a better Internet, and a better Internet is better for all of us.

DuckDuckGo is building a privacy layer for the Internet, not just because that's what people deserve, but because it can help solve one of the biggest challenges we face today — healing the Internet and transforming it into a more positive force in our society.

How do hidden web trackers put my privacy at risk?
Share this