How much do you love online content? So much you pay for everything you can? Or do you, like the overwhelming majority of internet users, accept advertising and tracking as a way of life?
The adage goes, “if you’re not paying, you’re the product,” and when it comes to internet services and the media, this is truer than ever. Finding out who and what is tracking you isn’t easy, but there are several sites and browser extensions that give you a little more clarity. Here’s how you find out who is tracking you online.
Panopticlick is one of the first sites to check out. Panopticlick analyzes your current browser setup, including add-ons and extensions, to measure just how many trackers are tracing your browser session.
This Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) research project takes it one step further by detailing unique configuration features that make your browser more noticeable among tracking data.
How to Use Panopticlick
Head to the Panopticlick site and hit the giant orange “Test Me” button. Wait for the analysis to complete. Remember, you will experience different levels of tracking, depending on your list of add-ons and extensions. My browser, for instance, has several extensions blocking almost all trackers.
Note that your browser may refresh several times while this test is running. Don’t panic—just wait for it to complete.
2. Am I Unique?
Am I Unique? is a tracker analyzer with a focus on the unique fingerprint your browser broadcasts. Browsers are relatively unique and frequently used to identify you online.
Am I Unique? takes a fingerprint of your system and adds it to its own database, adding a four-month cookie to your system in the process. You can then head back to the site in a few weeks and examine the changes to your browser fingerprint and if you have become more or less unique.
How to Use Am I Unique?
Head to the Am I Unique? site and hit the View My Browser Fingerprint button. Wait for the analysis to complete, then check your results.
If you want to periodically analyze your fingerprint evolution, head to the “My timeline” tab in the left-hand menu column. Download the add-on for your browser (there is support for Chrome and Firefox) and check it periodically for changes.
Disconnect features in many tracker-blocking lists, and for good reason. The browser extension blocks over 2,000 individual trackers from following you around the internet.
Not only that but by blocking such a vast amount of trackers, websites actually load faster—up 27 percent faster, according to Disconnect.
The best Disconnect feature, however, is the option to allow some trackers and not others. If you’re a discerning internet user, you whitelist the sites that give you great content for free. MUO, for instance.
How to Use Disconnect
Using Disconnect is extremely easy. First, head to the Disconnect site and hit the “Get Disconnect” button. Disconnect is currently available for Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera (download links below). Once you install Disconnect, head to any other website and open the extension. The drop-down panel shows you the entire range of trackers currently jotting down your browser session.
Unlike Panopticlick and Am I Unique?, Disconnect lets you visualize the trackers too. Again, this depends on your other browser settings, but you should see some trackers directly connecting to the site. Some might be harmless or relate to your work or business, so be mindful of precisely what you’re turning off.
Disconnect is just one of the many privacy and tracking tools available for Chrome.
Download: Disconnect for Chrome | Firefox | Safari | Opera
4. Thunderbeam—Lightbeam for Chrome
Lightbeam is a visual aid to online trackers, displaying the extremely tangled web of trackers between individual sites you visit.
It was previously a Firefox-only privacy tool. Unfortunately, the Firefox version is no longer available, but there is now an open-source version available for Chrome.
How to Use Lightbeam
Head to the Lightbeam extension page and add it to your browser. Open the extension by clicking the Lightbeam icon in the top-right corner of the browser.
You arrive at an empty graph. You can quickly populate the graph by heading to some of your favorite sites. Each site will be added to the graph with its associated trackers. As you visit more sites, the links between them grow, quickly creating a spaghetti monster of tangled lines. It perfectly illustrates which trackers are following you.
The only downside is that the new version lacks the website logos from the old version. You can hover over each circle to reveal the site, but the website favicons made it simple to see which sites track you.
Trackography is your third visual tracker-guide, this time with a more interactive take. Trackography, developed by the Tactical Technology Collective, is an open-source project aiming to “lift the veil on the global tracking industry” by visualizing the vast array of trackers following you around the internet.
You can use Trackography to check:
- Which companies are tracking you.
- The countries hosting the servers of those tracking companies.
- Countries hosting the servers of the website you’re viewing.
- The countries hosting the network infrastructure required to access those media servers and tracking companies.
- Further information on how tracking companies handle your data with regards to their privacy policies.
Overall, Trackography is a great visual resource if you want to understand more about the flow of data tracking around the globe and where you fit into it.
How to Use Trackography
Head to the Trackography site. Select your host nation. Next, select a media website you want to connect to. Connection lines will immediately spread from your host nation, illustrating the path your data takes, as well as the multiple locations you had no idea your data was traveling through.
6. Trace My Shadow
Okay, so Trace My Shadow doesn’t tell you precisely who is tracking you. It does, however, give you a strong overview of where tracking might stem from across a spectrum of commonly used hardware, operating systems, mobile services, and online services.
The idea is that you can build up a solid picture of where trackers lurk and make positive changes to block those trackers. Unfortunately, Trace My Shadow stopped being updated in 2019, so some details may be outdated.
That said, the information provided during testing seemed absolutely fine, and the advice it offers is still completely relevant. Online trackers haven’t gone anywhere, of course, so it’s certainly not out of date.
How to Use Trace My Shadow
Head to the website and select Tracking from the menu. Now, scroll down and begin adding options from the sidebar, starting with the type of computer you use.
Each time you add a new device, subscription, or service, the number of potential traces increases.
How to Block Online Trackers
Online trackers are part and parcel of the internet. But just because they’re embedded in the fabric of the service doesn’t mean you cannot take steps to stop online trackers from following your activities.
Here are some of the best tools for blocking online trackers:
- uBlock Origin: Block trackers, malicious advertising servers, malware, and more.
- HTTPS Everywhere: Enable HTTPS to protect your data in transit.
- NoScript: Block background scripts.
- Privacy Badger: Block trackers and unwanted cookies.
- PixelBlock: Block tracking pixels in Gmail.
- Google Activity Controls: Control what Google remembers about your searches.
- deseat.me: Delete your old online accounts with a single click.
- Tor Browser: Uses built-in script blocking and onion routing protocol to protect your privacy.
- DuckDuckGo: Search the internet without trackers taking note.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it will set you on the right path to avoiding trackers where possible.
Who Is Monitoring Me Online?
In recent years, online trackers and privacy violations have repeatedly hit the news, and never for the right reasons. There are a few names that repeatedly breach your privacy too, such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon, though they are far from the only tech companies tracking your online activity.
The following WhoTracksMe chart illustrates the percentage of trackers found online belonging to each major tech company:
As you can see, Google is way out in front. As the world’s largest advertising firm whose very business model relies on tracking and cataloging online activity for resale, this should come as no surprise.
If you want to stop Facebook tracking you online or reduce the ways Google can track you, it’s worth a shot. Combined with the list of online tracker blocking tools and apps above, and you have a chance at drastically reducing your online footprint and boosting your privacy in the process.