How the Cookies Crumble Part 2
In Part 1 I talked about all of the nasty things that cookies can do and how they can be used to monitor your activity on the web as well as the fact that they can slow page response by an order of magnitude. Facebook and Google hook tracking cookies into you browser sessions without you even knowing it is happening. As mentioned in the previous article Facebook and Google, as well as many other internet providers, not only use these tracking techniques but they also bring along their friends, i.e. vendors who pay them money. These vendors, in turn, bring along their friends and as the number of trackers increase the danger of voluminous tracking becomes more likely.
What Can be Done?
A Tale of 2 Browsers
There are a number of ways to minimize the amount of tracking and some ways to make yourself aware that you are being tracked. My personal favorite is the EPIC Privacy Browser. The EPB is a branch of Chromium with some key differences. If you are not aware Google Chrome is also a branch of Chromium. The differences in the branches are dramatic. While Google implements hooks in Chrome to make their pernicious behavior more invasive, EPIC does exactly the opposite with the same code base. With EPIC, privacy is not an option it is the default. Whereas you can configure Chrome to use “Private Browsing” do you really trust Google’s word that it is private. I don’t!
EPIC doesn’t believe “In Private” browsing modes provided by other vendors is as safe as it sounds. EPIC takes the position that all of your browsing should be private. So with EPIC private browsing is always on. However, with protection there is a price. Some password managers will not work and there are some web pages that take advantage of features that are blocked by the EPIC so there may be some frustration with EPIC but the question is pretty obvious. Do we want to be looking at sites that use hooks that could be exploited? For some the reward of privacy may not be worth the convenience of having the extra flash and sizzle of a fully loaded browser such as Google Chrome. But for many the idea of exposing themselves in the internet is just a price that they must pay to protect their privacy.
Let’s walk through the things that EPIC does for us. As mentioned privacy is the default but what about tracking? Did you know that a visit to the top 50 websites will place over 3,000 tracking files on your computer! To prove my point visit http://www.mybrowserinfo.com/detail.asp?bhcp=1 and see what happens. That is a advertiser’s paradise and not to mention heaven for the hacker. You can be tracked to your exact location simply by going to a website. Trackers can learn what kind of operation system you run, what browser you run, whether your OS is 32 or 64 bit, all of the features and add-ons you have enabled, your language and many other useful bits of information that can be used to target you for marketing or even worse, a virus attack.
With EPIC other tracking mechanisms are also eliminated as well. One of things you will notice with EPIC is that there are no social media share buttons. Why, you ask? Well These social media buttons have ways of tracking you simply by being on the web page you happen to select. EPIC eliminates them so you have fewer “share” options but much greater privacy and security.
Ever Wanted to Be a Genie!
Poof! Your not there anymore. Well You can do that very thing. How can that be? EPIC provides a feature called the “One-Click Encrypted Proxy”. What is that you may ask? It is very simple, Normally your browser happily exposes itself through your ISP such as Verizon or Comcast allowing them and pretty much anyone with a sniffer to see what you are doing. However, if you connect to another provider, i.e. EPIC, and create an encrypted pipe called a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to that provider then your browsing habits and location for that matter are much more difficult for anyone to sniff. You may also purchase a VPN service that protects not only your browsing but all activity that occurs on your system whether it is a desktop, a notebook, a tablet or a smartphone.
These VPN service providers create a VPN “tunnel” that is much like that provided by employers who have work-from-home policies. They create a private, encrypted tunnel to servers located all over the world. So today you could be in London today and tomorrow Buenos Aires. Most of these services are around $40-60 per year. Well worth the money. Some of those services can be reviewed here: http://netforbeginners.about.com/od/readerpicks/tp/The-Best-VPN-Service-Providers.htm
Another advantage of many of these VPN providers is that they use NAT (Network Address Translation) and do not log browsing activity making the task of tracking your browsing activity almost impossible. Even for the NSA.
Other things to Do!
If you prefer to continue using browsers like Internet Explorer but want to increase your privacy then just clear all browsing history upon exit. But you also want to clear all of the browsing data and cookies as well. This makes it more difficult for trackers to get a handle on your browsing habits.
To do that click Settings—>Internet Options.
1) Select “Delete Browsing History on Exit”.
2) Next click on “Settings” and select “Automatically” then click ok.
3) Finally select all of the radio check boxes and click “Delete”. This will immediately delete all history.
By setting up Internet Explorer in this manner you will clear all data that can be used to track your activity. You should never leave browser sessions active as the tracking files remain in place until the browser session ends.
The same kinds of options are in the Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Dolphin browsers as well but IE is the most common browser so that is the one I chose to document here.
It is very important that we all take our privacy seriously. The fact that these tracking mechanisms are in place gives us a sense of how they can be used not only for good (according to Facebook to improve our experience and make advertisements more relevant), but these mechanisms also have the unintended consequences of facilitating not only fraudulent activity but just imagine if someone like Hitler, Linen or Stalin had has these mechanisms at his disposal.
The immense power associated with data garnered from our browser sessions has been the subject of much debate. Remember in just a few short years Facebook has accumulated more than 300 petabytes of data, that is 300 million megabytes. The most important question is not, “How is this data used?” but, “How can this data be used?”. The IRS targeted conservatives, Obama was reelected using demographic data from Facebook and Google and the NSA is tracking as much of this data as it possibly can.
When will your personal freedom depend on how and what you browse on the internet?
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