Yes, your online privacy is being invaded, and everything you search is being tracked. Here’s how to browse like no’s watching.
The internet has turned out to be an integral part of our lives. It’s used daily by billions of people across the globe. Whether you want to look for a nearby restaurant or a cake recipe, directions to a place or buy clothes, electronics and apparels, the internet makes all of this available at your fingertips. But despite all the usefulness, there’s also a big threat that generally revolves around on the internet.
Sounds scary? Well, how many times have you come across ads that are relevant to your recent searches? Whether you were looking for cheap flight tickets or renting a flat or browsing for shoes online, you may have seen ads related to your searches everywhere. You are scrolling through your Facebook timeline, and there you have a relevant ad. Even when you are reading news on some online publication, there too you see ads related popping everywhere.
Have you ever wondered how Facebook knows what you are interested in? Is it a mind reader? Well, no. Actually, you’re being followed online. And when it comes to your digital profile, it includes every page that you visit and every search that you make. Sure, the internet is supposed to be a private place, but these companies are not just following you on their own, it is because you allowed them too. Remember the terms and conditions that you get when setting up a smartphone or when signing up for services, and you blindly click on “I Accept” and continue. These all result in browser tracking.
What is browser tracking and how it works?
Every time you visit a website, third-party trackers get stored on your computer. These trackers are basically things like cookies, web beacons, pixel tags, and flash cookies. You may come across sites that ask you to ‘allow cookies’ and those are nothing but one of the trackers. Now, the number of trackers on a given website completely depends on the website owner decides to include, and some websites may also have over 60 trackers.
You don’t need to be scared of these trackers, as most of them track the visitor numbers, or track where the visitors come from. For instance, you may be looking for cheap hotels in Goa in Google search, and among the results, you choose to go and book with Yatra.com or Booking.com. Or, from the Google search result, you may go to Trivago, which is a hotels aggregator that shows results from various sites, so you get to choose the cheapest one. Here, the trackers will let the travel company, learn that you went from Google search to an aggregator, and then landed on their site, which makes it easier to share commissions.
Tracking heatmaps for user behaviour
Then there are trackers that record every move of yours to learn the pattern and behaviour. For instance, there could be an ad in the middle, and two ads with great deals on either side. Depending on where most visitors click or hover their cursor around, the company can better place an ad in that region for more visibility. You will still get the best deal here, but it is kind of creepy when every move of yours, every cursor movement is tracked and logged for further analysis.
How companies track your devices?
With so many internet connected smartphones today, it is easier than ever for the companies to track you. Even opening a website, checking emails or logging in to your social media accounts is enough for companies to track visits. Then there is something called ‘browser fingerprinting’ that collects information from remote computing devices.
It collects data such as your IP address, screen size, the time-zone, operating system, browsing history, and much more. We often read analyst reports stating something like 87 percent smartphone users have Android phones, or 50 percent or more smartphone users prefer screen size of 5.5-inch and above.
Where do these statistics come from? Well, ‘browser fingerprinting’ is your answer. Is it good or bad? For analysis and to help companies offer you with even better services, it is indeed good. But all of your moves are recorded, which also means your privacy is getting invaded.
Gmail is the best example
I receive a lot of emails on daily basis, from service providers, spam and more. I book a flight ticket, and the next time I see my Google Calendar, the date, time and flight number is already added. Two hours before the flight, I get a notification with the flight time and delays, the terminal and more. The same thing happens with a movie or a train ticket, or a hotel booking.
I was recently searching for an insurance policy, got a quote from an aggregator website, but did not buy it. The next couple of days, I noticed a small ad section in Gmail window showing me relevant insurance policies and quotes from providers. I also started getting emails from some providers with lucrative offers. Again, while it is good that I will come across best deals, but it is creepy at the same time, as Google knows everything I do, everything I search for.
Growing internet users in India
The past couple of years have seen a billion unconnected Indians getting connected to the internet, thanks to service providers like Reliance Jio bringing cheaper high-speed data plans. This has also led to incumbent telecom operators come up with affordable data plans. The wired line broadband has also seen a reduction in tariff plans, but bundling more data at the same time.
But it’s not just the affordable internet, the laptops, tablets, and more importantly, smartphones have also gotten cheaper. A recent story from Zenith indicated that India is expected to have the second highest number of smartphone users by the end of this year, in excess of 530 million. And with so many unconnected getting connected to the internet, it is important to have privacy when surfing online.
Most smartphone users use WhatsApp and Facebook to connect with their family and friends, Instagram to share their photos, YouTube to watch videos, Gmail for their emails, and so on. This gives companies a perfect opportunity to track user interests and present them with relevant ads.
How to avoid being followed on the internet?
There are a handful of anti-tracking browser extensions that you can use. These extensions can block certain ads from being displayed, block analytics and prevent social media platforms from tracking your activities.
Cookies usually store elements of your browsing history, items that you add to your shopping cart on e-commerce websites, and flash ads on different websites. The anti-tracking extensions detect the trackers and their sources, and block them from loading content. As the trackers cannot load content or save cookies on your computer, the source cannot track you at all.
Some of these extensions include Adblock Plus, Disconnect and Ghostery, all of which are available on Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge browser. In case of Opera browser, you can head over to Preferences, followed by Privacy & Security, and enable relevant options under “Block Ads’ and ‘Privacy’ section.
When it comes to smartphones, you have the Adblock browser and Ghostery Privacy browser for Android and iOS. There is also Firefox Focus browser that is present on both the platforms which block ad trackers, analytics trackers, social and content trackers. It also erases the browsing history every time you exit the browser.
Then there is “The Ultimate Privacy Solution App” from Redmorph, which is available on Android for Rs 50 per month. The app comes with a host of features that protects you from internet trackers that spy on you. It comes with built-in VPN to keep your data connection secure, along with the active cookie and context-based tracker blocking.
In an interaction with BGR India, Abhay Edlabadkar, Founder & CEO, Redmorph offered some insights on how the trackers work, how they target devices, and also spoke about the features of their app. To begin with, the app monitors all the apps that are installed on your smartphone, including the system apps. Every time you open the app, the data that is transmitted between the app and server, and back, is monitored, and the app presents you with a graph of trackers and attacks it has blocked.
Within the app, you will find a security tab that lists all the apps on your smartphone, along with three icons – one is for protection level (which can be set to none, standard or advanced), second is to allow or deny internet connection, and third is the list of permissions granted to the app. Edlabadkar highlighted the fact the most users give permission to the apps, even those that are not required. For instance, a messaging app asking for camera permission could be risky, as even when the app is not in use, it can use the camera to look around the surrounding. The Ultimate Privacy Solution App looks for such suspicious permissions, and blocks them, thus keeping you safe, and maintaining privacy.
Lastly, he also touched upon points where Android users download app APKs from external sources, rather than from the Play Store. These could be premium game app cracks that can be downloaded for free from torrent and other sites, rather than paying for them. But this is exactly where the problem lies. Cracked apps have trackers placed in them, which gives you free access to games, but it could mine cryptocurrencies in the background, steal your data, such as login credentials, contact details, emails and more. When such malicious app is found by the Redmorph’s app, it will not only prompt the user, but also block all access, and thus keep your data safe.
Edlabadkar also demonstrated how the app can detect fake and malware apps. For the demo, he used two banking and mobile wallet apps, that were basically impersonators. The interface looked exactly like the actual app, but instead of pinging the service provider’s server, it was connecting to an unknown server, which could be used by cybercriminals and attackers. The Ultimate Privacy Solution App detects these threats and prompts you to uninstall them.