At this year’s virtually held Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) there were a few attention-grabbing headlines about the upcoming iOS 14 and macOS releases. In what the company calls “the biggest update ever” the built-in browser Safari will get a new set of privacy features later in 2020 alongside the debut of Big Sur, the news MacOS.
Adding to its Intelligent Tracking Prevention, Safari will now feature a “Privacy Report” button in the toolbar that when clicked shows users information about the trackers on the websites they visit. In addition, the start page will now have a new weekly Privacy Report showing users how Safari protects them by revealing the known trackers it’s identified while they were browsing and from which websites the trackers originated. The idea is to offer more transparency to users about who and how they are being followed while online.
To understand why this news is a big deal let’s look at what exactly web tracking is and why you might want to care about it.
What is web tracking?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that tracking isn’t achieved by one single technology, rather it’s a combination of techniques used to identify and follow a user across multiple websites. By collecting information about your online activities, web trackers can monetize this information, selling it to advertisers who then compile data-rich, accurate profiles to use in the creation of highly targeted ads. And this isn’t always bad. In fact, people often willingly opt-in to trackers as they prefer – and even want – to see and receive personalized ads.
How does tracking work?
As stated above, tracking can be achieved through various methods. Here’s a quick breakdown of how you can be followed online:
Cookies are probably the most common way users are tracked while browsing the internet. They are small pieces of data that are saved to your browser by a website. So, each time you visit a webpage, cookies can be stored on your device. Websites typically have first-party cookies in place to do useful things like remember your language or currency preferences, help you login or suggest relevant content. Third-party cookies, however, do not come from the website itself but are embedded from another website – one which you may not have ever visited. These third-party cookies are mainly used for ad-related tracking.
Embedded scripts, whether visible or invisible, are another tracking tool. For example, pixel trackers – transparent pixel-sized images are often embedded on a web page or email. They offer marketers insight into user behavior, like if an email was opened or not, but can also collect additional information like location data and specific device information.
Fingerprinting is a more invasive way to track users online. A digital fingerprint, is created when a company makes a unique profile of a user based on their computer, installed fonts and software, add-ons, and web browsers. Apple has also recently rejected 16 new Web APIs in Safari due to potential threats to user privacy over open opportunities for fingerprinting.
Want to block trackers? Here’s how
The less you can be followed as you browse the web, the more chances you have to avoid trackers. And no matter what browser you decide to use to search and surf the web you have several options to keep your activities private. A first option which offers some level of privacy, is to activate your browser’s private browsing, or incognito mode.
Secondly you can add a free browser extension like Avira Browser Safety for Firefox and Opera browsers or the Avira Safe Shopping extension for Chrome and Edge. Both options provide protections against ad and social media tracking, can block ads and make sure every website you visit is safe.
Lastly, for complete privacy you can anonymize all your web browsing and online communications by using a VPN. Not only will a VPN hide your IP address and therefore keep your location private, it encrypts your web traffic, routing all your online activities via a secure tunnel making it virtually impossible for anyone to gain access.