[This is a guest post by Cyrus Nemati, Web Producer, Center for Democracy and Technology]
In our guest posts here on Geekdad, we at CDT talk a lot about how Internet users need stronger privacy protections on the Internet. We even launched the Take Back Your Privacy campaign last month to encourage others to speak out if they want their privacy. The Internet does not wait for corporations or the law to catch up to its needs, though, so the tech-savvy privacy advocates among us find ways to protect themselves (even if those ways make the Internet less fun to use). Using browser plug-ins is one route you can take to secure your family’s online privacy.
What Are Browser Plug-ins?
Browser plug-ins are any sort of extension of the browser’s capability. There are plug-ins that protect privacy, plug-ins that tell you the weather, and there’s even a plug-in that makes your browser yell “Stop! Hammertime!” every time you hit the “stop” button on your browser. It’s not possible to stay 100% secure or private with a standard browser install, so I introduce plug-ins to my browser to add that capability.
Who’s Watching Us?
My three main plug-ins are NoScript, a script-blocker; Ghostery which allows me to view and block analytics tools; and Cookie Monster, a cookie-management plug-in. They reveal a very different Internet from the one most people are used to.
Let’s use a news site as an example. News sites thrive on data – not just the news of the day, but our personal data as well. Let’s hop on foxnews.com, for example.
Nothing looks out of the ordinary here. My URL bar says that I am at foxnews.com, so I’m just receiving foxnews.com content, right? Well, let’s see what NoScript has to say.
As you can see, when I visit foxnews.com, I’m actually visiting a lot more than just foxnews.com. Most of these scripts that run when I visit foxnews.com come from web advertising services, which serve me ads based on my apparent browsing preferences. Unfortunately, these sorts of scripts can be very invasive. Have you ever looked at an item on Amazon.com that was a little embarrassing? Maybe you looked at a nose-hair trimmer to fix that hairy little secret problem, and then you had Amazon recommend the Nosehair Slaughter-o-matic 3000? I’ve never had that happen to me, of course – this is just hypothetical – but that’s just an example of how invasive these sorts of scripts can be.
It’s not just advertisers that employ these tracking practices, though. Most websites these days have web analytics packages that can monitor your browsing habits on that particular website. These analytics packages can be passive, simply monitoring traffic levels within a time period, or they can be extremely aggressive, perhaps tracking how long you spent at each page, where you went after visiting that page, or how often you visited over the course of a few months… or even years. So, let’s see what kinds of analytics packages are watching us on foxnews.com.
As you can see, there are eight different packages running here. It boggles the mind to think that this much data can be collected and analyzed. Lucky for us, Ghostery makes it very easy to block these analytics packages.
Most of these analytics packages place cookies on your browser so they can keep track of you wherever you go, but Cookie Monster makes it simple to just toss your cookies, so to speak.
Why Isn’t This Standard?
Though it was a bit of work to set up, I have an extremely secure browser. So why doesn’t everyone do this? Why do I even need plug-ins to keep my browsing habits private? Well, the simple answer is that my browser is almost completely crippled. I may be secure, but I don’t have the Internet experience that most people have. If I try to watch a video on nearly any site, no dice. Any social networking features? Lost. And there are many sites that refuse to even load.
The truth is, about half the time I visit a new website, I end up too frustrated to bother setting my plug-ins to render it properly. If I’m lucky, I end up with some half-formed beast of a site that’s unpleasant to navigate. Inevitably, I’ll end up navigating away to another site that I trust and have already opened up my browser to. It’s quite possible that I’m missing some really intriguing stuff out there, but it will never penetrate my thick privacy shell. For many of us, this sort of inconvenience while browsing just isn’t worth it.
Our choices are rather rotten right now: either protect your privacy with a crippled browser, or give it up for the better user experience. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Facebook users have done an incredible job demanding, and in many cases, getting more privacy from Facebook. They’ve done this simply by spreading the word and letting other people know that they were mad as hell, and that they weren’t going to take it any more.
If Facebook users can demand greater privacy – and get it – there is no reason why we can’t demand that privacy protections be mandated. By pushing for Internet user privacy legislation, we can eliminate our having to make the terrible choice between an awful Internet browsing experience or giving away our personal information. Check out takebackyourprivacy.org for CDT’s campaign to make this happen.
Your browser will thank you for it.