How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

+Nik Cubrilovic discovered last week that Facebook could track your web activities even after you logged out of your Facebook account. After some blatant denials from Facebook spokespeople, Facebook decided to fix the logout issue, but not before +Michael Arrington, on his new Uncrunched blog, made a concise post revealing Facebook's dishonesty: Facebook submitted a patent application for "tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain" on September 22nd, 2011.

Although I discussed how to deal with the issue briefly in Everything You Need to Know About the New Facebook, the truth is that Facebook is not the only social network interested in tracking you and your web activities. Google is also interested in what you buy, what you like to click, and where you spend most of your time online. If you're logged into your Google account, all this activity is tracked. For the most part, I think the tracking is harmless, and it helps better target their text ads. However, for a growing number of people, this sort of tracking is just another sign of further erosion of our online privacy. 

+Nik Cubrilovic posted a very informative article on how you can secure your Facebook account. Much of the same advice also applies to Google and Google+.

Warnings

  • Although I'm providing you with the best information I can find, I'm no coder or programmer, and the advice I'm covering does not mean that you will never be hacked, that you will never have your information leaked, etc. (I do welcome feedback and suggestions from informed people, and will update this post to include any helpful advice.)
  • Often, the best defense is simply to get rid of your bad habits. I have a bad habit of leaving myself logged into accounts on other people's computers. This is VERY STUPID and I KNOW IT. I'm working on not doing this anymore, and I like to think I've improved, except this morning my husband told me he "liked" something on his computer while I was still logged into Facebook. Oops.

Install Extensions

There are some great extensions out there that will help you maintain your privacy in what seems to be an uphill battle against the very sites you do love. 

  • Disconnect is a browser extension that is available for Firefox, Chrome and Safari. It will allow you to "depersonalize" searches made on Google and Yahoo, disable third-party sites like Google or Twitter or Facebook from tracking your information. You can also "unblock" apps to do stuff like play games in Facebook. Created by +Brian Kennish.
  • Facebook Disconnect is an older extension, from the same creator, that blocks traffic from third-party sites to Facebook's servers, while still allowing you to use Facebook.
  • ShareMeNot is a Firefox add-on that prevents third-party sites like Facebook or Twitter from collecting data on you unless you click on the "Like" or "Tweet" buttons.
  • AdBlock Plus is an extension available for both Chrome and Firefox that allows you to block all online ads.  One note: many of the sites you know and love, including WonderHowTo, depend on advertising revenue to provide you with free content. Make sure you whitelist the sites you do like in order to continue supporting them. To do so, go into the Extensions menu on your browser, select AdBlock Plus, and click on "Customize". You can customize AdBlock in several ways, as shown below. You can block an ad by its URL, hide a section of a webpage, or allow ads to show on a specific page or domain.

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

Furthermore, you can also add filters in the "Manually edit your filters" section, and add the following filters to get rid of Facebook tracking: 

connect.facebook.*

*.facebook.*/plugins*

"Like" buttons will no longer appear on the page, and your traffic will not be sent to Facebook even if you're logged in. (Saw this on MetaFilter.) If you're interested, or have time, you can check out AdBlock Plus Filters to further customize your browsing experience.

  • NoScript is a Firefox extension that I cannot live without. Installing it will automatically block JavaScript, Flash, Java, and other plug-ins unless you expressly give a site permission to display them. (And it'll make Firefox faster.) If you have not used NoScript before, please note that it will change your browsing behavior. Whenever you go to a new site, you will need to right-click the "S" icon below, and choose what to allow. You can also "temporarily allow", or "temporarily allow all this page", which will run all the scripts on the page you're viewing. Clicking on "Allow Scripts Globally" will allow scripts to run on every site, and is not recommended.

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

Delete Cookies

Yes. Do it! Websites use cookies to monitor and track your usage patterns. If you'd like to preserve your privacy, set your browser to delete cookies every time you close it. Every place I looked had outdated information about deleting cookies, so here's an updated guide for Chrome and Firefox. 

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

For Google Chrome:

  • Go to the Chrome menu.
  • Select Clear Browsing Data.
  • You will see the following menu pop up:

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

  • Select what you want to get rid of, and the time period, and click on Clear Browsing Data.
  • Go back to the Chrome menu, and select Preferences.
  • Click on Under the Hood. Click on Content Settings. For each section, you'll have the choice to run things automatically, block, or ask you when you want something to run. Google Chrome automatically chooses what's recommended, but you can change those settings easily. If you choose to block or not allow a site to track your activities, you might also want to click on the Manage Exceptions button to allow the sites you do trust to run. For the Cookies section, make sure you select "Clear cookies and other site and plug-in data when I quit my browser". 

For Firefox:

  • Go to the Firefox menu.
  • Select Preferences. Click on the Privacy tab. You can check the "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked" option. 
  • Firefox defaults to remembering your history as shown in the drop-down menu below. You can choose to "Never remember history", which turns all your Firefox browser sessions into private browsing. If you choose this option, Firefox will not remember any history at all whenever you use it.
  • If you select "Use custom settings for history", you will see a number of options. Maybe you want to keep your download history, but not your browsing history. Or you don't want to accept any cookies at all. You can also choose to clear your history whenever Firefox is closed. Use what's best for you.

Use Incognito or Private Browsing Mode

For the truly paranoid, just turn on Incognito mode in Chrome, or Private Browsing for Firefox. Nothing about your search history or website visits is kept during these sessions.

For Chrome:

  • Go to File.
  • Select New Incognito Window. (Your extensions will be disabled for these sessions, although you can re-enable them individually.)

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

For Firefox:

  • Go to Tools.
  • Select Start Private Browsing. You will see the following pop-up menu. Click on "Start Private Browsing" to begin your session.

How to Prevent Social Networks from Tracking Your Internet Activities

Photo by postbear; Cookie Monster comic by Gegen Den Strich

8 Comments

Great guide :).
I also recommened ghosting (add-on), it blocks ads related to all known add sites, including google and facebook. A good add-on for google to not track you is googlesharing by Moxie Marlinspike. It puts all google traffic through a shared proxy (think tor) so google can't even tell where it's coming from.

excellent article, thank you.

"Ghosting" or "Ghostery"? I use ghostery and it works great... For instance, on this page it is blocking 10 separate web trackers. For all of you without such protection, enjoy the knowledge that Facebook, Google, Twitter, Comscore, Indieclick, OpenX, and Quantcast are all monitoring your use of this site as you read this :)

Ahh, thank you for correcting me x]]. I have 14 ad services at the moment, with 9 blocked. 4 of then are facebook related xD.

Thanks but want to share this and cant find the share buttons . :-(

Thanks for the compliments, guys. (I shouldn't mess an article like this up - my husband would laugh at me.) I'll definitely check out ghostery and googlesharing - had not heard of them before. @Jan, share buttons are on the top left - if you're not seeing them for whatever reason, message Rachel above with your browser information.

Thank you for shedding light on an important issue. I don't think tracking is harmless because I am aware. Since I am aware of it, I can deal with it. The problem is many people are not aware, don't read the privacy policies, and companies lie. The best advice I can give is to read the privacy policy, it's good netiquette. If you don't like it don't use it. Facebook is not essential, it's an advertising tool for businesses.

I agree it's a good idea to read the privacy policies. I just think it's not realistic, in the same way it's not realistic that anyone actually reads a EULA before opening and installing whatever it is they bought. Tech companies have evolved in such a way that they think it's not in their best interests to be open with consumers, and they do their best to hide relevant information from their customers. But I think making people aware of the options they have is good.

And although you might not deem Facebook essential, many people, casual Internet and computer users, depend on it to keep in touch with family and friends, because it's the easiest platform for them to share pictures and updates. Until something like Diaspora scales and can appeal to non-technical folk, that's what we're stuck with.

I am also not morally opposed to advertising. Advertising is how sites like WonderHowTo survive and thrive, and are able to offer fantastic products for free. That's why I do allow certain ads, such as Google text ads, because the product they provide in return is so good. I just don't want them to continue tracking me while I'm logged out.

Share Your Thoughts

  • Hot
  • Latest