This extension and others are helping to keep your web traffic just a little bit more private
Everyone wants their product to go viral, picking up millions of users. You can go the Snapchat route and let people throw stickers on their pictures. That seems to pick up steam pretty quickly.
Then there are the extensions and apps that seem to serve a more mission critical function when it comes to privacy and security. Names like Signal and LastPass are starting to become better known, but there are plenty more out there that are making waves.
One of these is these is Privacy Badger, which broke the one million download mark earlier this week.
Sitting on your Chrome, Firefox, or Opera browser, this handy little extension works hard to block illicit third-party tracking and was developed by the good folks over at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). You can download it from their site.
As a non-profit, what is the EFF doing getting into the extension development game?
The short answer is because they care.
On their site describing the Privacy Badger, they explain that “Third-party tracking—that is, when advertisers and websites track your browsing activity across the web without your knowledge, control, or consent—is an alarmingly widespread practice in online advertising.”
While they are addressing advertising here, their real target is companies that do not respect Do Not Track policies, explaining that “Privacy Badger encourages advertisers to treat users respectfully and anonymously rather than follow the industry status quo of online tracking. It does this by unblocking content from domains that respect our Do Not Track policy, which states that the participating site will not retain any information about users who have expressed that they do not want to be tracked.”
They describe the function of the extension, noting that, “Privacy Badger spots and then blocks third-party domains that seem to be tracking your browsing habits (e.g. by setting cookies that could be used for tracking, or by fingerprinting your browser). If the same third-party domain appears to be tracking you on three or more different websites, Privacy Badger will conclude that the third party domain is a tracker and block future connections to it.”
Understanding that the issue of trackers isn’t black and white, they give the user the option to fully block a domain, only block some of the cookies, or simply allow the domain to function as per usual.
After installing it, the first thing that I noticed was the number over the extension image telling me how many trackers were on the page. If you have the Badger, take a moment to see how many trackers are on some of your favorite sites. The average that I found was somewhere around 40. Many of these are from Facebook, Twitter, and others, but then there were plenty that I had never heard of before. Most of these weirdos appeared to serve different purposes for ads.
However, when no trackers are uncovered, it will show you this kind of screen.
Nobody wants to be tracked, but how can you mess with them when they do?
As a tech reporter, I visit a lot of websites for companies selling things that I would never buy. Not because they are not offering good products, but I don’t have much use for enterprise cloud analytics services. It’s not you guys, it’s me. This jumping around to random sites throws Google Ads and others for a loop, showing me all kinds of irrelevant ads.
There are a number of services out there that offer similar options for guarding your privacy and hitting the advertisers. This link has a good write up of some that are worth trying out. However one of the things that Privacy Badger has going for it over others is that I know and trust who is behind them. Not bashing anyone else, but this feels like a safer bet to me.
If you want to mess with their trackers as well, I would suggest trying out the Internet Noise website which when left open on your browser to run wild, opens up tabs to run random searches based two-word combinations. Emily Dreyfuss of Wired has a good review of it here.
They admit that it’s more of an annoyance to the trackers than a security measure, but their protest to the passage by Congress that will allow ISPs to sell your traffic without your permission comes through loud and clear.
Tackling ads vs improving privacy
What actually interests me about Privacy Badger is that its focus is on protecting user privacy and not on just being another ad blocker. I know that I’m probably pretty alone on this one, but I don’t feel 100% comfortable with the concept of ad blockers.
Sure ads are annoying and can in some cases be quite dangerous attack vectors, but they also keep the lights on. In the age of free content on the web, publishers need that ad revenue, and they need it bad. For them, the alternative is branded content where the stories are shaped around the sponsor’s messages. This works fine for some kinds of content which can be pretty great — think about those Tasty videos — but is less helpful for objective reporting.
I’ll take things a step further. I don’t think that all kinds of tracking are bad. Since I already think that ads should be websites to pay the bills, I would rather see relevant ads that might actually interest me. Learning from your behavior is probably the best way that they can think of to offer you the best ads and this requires some level of tracking.
My personal beef has always fallen on the consumer being unaware of what they are giving up in exchange for hopefully better services. Why does your email sometimes take that one extra moment to send through Gmail? It’s because they have to read it first. That’s an exchange that I am more than happy to make, but I know that they are doing it.