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The web browsers’ war on user tracking

When you clear your cookies, you're unlikely to really be getting rid of them. Photo / Getty Images

One of the issues that was re-ignited in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to lawmakers on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal in April was the way Facebook, Google and others track your movements across the web.

It is one thing for Facebook to know exactly what you are doing within the confines of its blue and grey bordered newsfeed or for Google to record exactly what you’ve searched for or watched on YouTube. We expect that and it is covered by the terms of service we agree to.

But their reach goes much further to capture your web browsing well beyond their own websites. That’s why you’ll get the Air New Zealand adverts for a spring getaway to Fiji in your Instagram feed even though you made no mention of considering taking a holiday on Instagram or Facebook.

Life in a pixel

Somewhere else on the web you’ve browsed island holiday destinations and Facebook, which also owns Instagram, knows all about it. That’s because millions of website have installed the Facebook Pixel on their web pages, an invisible artefact that lets web developers share your browsing activity with Facebook.

Why would they do so? Because it helps them and advertisers on their websites extend their reach into the social media domain using Facebook’s clever ad targeting to carry on the sales pitch and hopefully close the deal.

RelatedArticlesModule - web tracking

Google does something very similar using advertising ‘cookies’. Its Google Ads network spans millions of websites delivering personalised adverts to you, and Google can also tailor ads to you based on your web browsing for when you are in its domain, using the likes of Youtube, Google Search and Gmail.

Again, much of this activity is covered by terms of service and privacy policies so technically Facebook, Google and a host of others probably have your permission to track your movements across the web. Facebook and Google have also overhauled their privacy dashboards in recent months to let you more easily control what can be tracked.

But most users are too busy and preoccupied with life to tinker around with their web privacy settings, which is why two of the largest web browser makers are taking matters into their own hands.

Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox web browsers are introducing new features that will automate the blocking of common data tracking techniques.

Read more: When algorithms go rogue 

Continuing the theme

Mozilla had in 2015 introduced an opt-in Tracking Protection tool (available by default only on Apple devices), following that up with Do Not Track, a feature of the web browser that lets you tell website owners that you don’t want your activity on their website tracked. But it appears that few website owners adopted that voluntary feature and Firefox users have been slow to turn on the tracking blocker for desktops and Android devices.

Now Firefox is testing an update that strips out cookies that allow you to be followed around the web and will disable the browser from storing third-party tracking content. Trackers that slow down web pages will also be targeted and blocked and Firefox also plans to prevent fingerprinting of users based on their device details - such as operating system and device type.

Firefox will also target the growing phenomenon of websites using your computer processing power to undertake cryptocurrency mining transactions, often without your knowledge.

Firefox will roll out some of the features in the coming months but plans to make them widely available in Firefox 65, scheduled for release in January.

Apple made tracking blocking automatic in an update to Safari available for the iPhone and iPad on Tuesday and for desktop computers from next week. But it will go a step further. In the escalating battle over web tracking technology, it turns out deleting the cookies stored in your web browser isn’t enough to cover your tracks.

Some tracking companies can circumvent cookie deletion, continuing to collect valuable information about you. Safari version 12 will thwart that by blocking collection of data about the Mac or iOS device you are using, info that can still identify you.

Safari 12 will also prevent embedded content and social media buttons from tracking cross-site browsing without your permission.

If you don't want to be tracked, Safari 12 might be for you.

Good and bad cookies

What will this mean for you as a Safari or Firefox user? Hopefully, the end of that nagging feeling that advertisers know your every desire and have a product ready to sell to you.

But both Apple and Mozilla know that cookies serve a useful purpose to make the browsing experience personalised to your needs. They will try to distinguish between the good and the bad ones. Either way, in future you are more likely to be asked for permission when clicking on a “like” or “share” button on a website when there’s a cookie sitting behind it.

Blocking tracking pixels and cookies won’t eliminate adverts on websites - they just won’t be as aggressively targeted at you. Numerous ad blockers exist as web browser plug-ins and apps if you want to totally eliminate ads from your browsing experience.

The goal is not just privacy but performance. With some websites hosting dozens of trackers, they can be slow to load which reflects badly on the web browsing software itself.

Where’s Chrome?

Firefox and Safari go a giant leap further with these updates than the market leader, Google Chrome, which is estimated to claim well over 50 per cent of the browser market. Microsoft's Edge browser has opt-in tracking blocking tools, but its usage is low compared to its rivals - in single figures in terms of market share.

Chrome has long had its incognito mode, which anonymises your browsing when it is enabled. However, claims have emerged that Google is still able to identify you and link you to your Google account ID when in incognito mode.

But Google, fundamentally, derives its revenue from advertising so will be loathe to go down the path of Firefox or Safari, which have no vested interest in facilitating advertisers to target you and amass data about you.

Google’s approach instead has been to target ‘bad ads’ - which degrade website performance, often because they are written with inefficient scripts or contain bloated tracking technology that is easy to detect and strip out.

Moving to automatic blocking of tracking technologies goes far beyond that and is unlikely to come to Chrome any time soon.

In the meantime, the new versions of Safari and Firefox will be worth checking out if you want to limit your exposure to the Facebook and Google data gathering machines. They won’t completely halt the data harvest - your activity in apps on your phone, for instance, is all tracked by the app makers and you need to allow some tracking functionality to make these services useful.

But as the #deletefacebook movement rolls on with some steam, many are, for the first time, actively considering how to protect their privacy and there are more tools than ever to turn to.


More on Safari 12 features and availability

More on the new upcoming Firefox privacy tools and existing Firefox privacy tools, such as the Facebook Container add-on

Third-party privacy plug-ins worth checking out - Ghostery and Privacy Badger.