Browsing and Privacy: How to Not Get Tracked

All modern browsers have built-in tools and add-ons to protect users from having their Web behavior tracked. But regardless, some sites still find ways to track you. Here are tips for taking matters into your own hands.CIO — If you’re old enough to remember the Cold War, you know what an arms race is. One side comes up with a new weapon, the other side matches it, and then the first comes back with something even bigger and so on and so on. That also describes the ongoing battle between computer users who value their privacy and the Web sites and their advertisers that don’t.

 

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Every time browser developers and others come up with a defense against tracking — the use of tiny bits of computer code that tells Web sites where you’ve been on the Internet — the other side ups the ante with a new trick. And it’s happening again.

A researcher at Stanford University recently found that Microsoft (MSFT) has been using an online tracking technology that allowed the company to sneakily track users on MSN.com even though it had used some of the standard techniques developed to avoid tracking.
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Another group of researchers found that other sites, including Hulu.com, employed super cookie techniques to track users for advertising purposes. They wrote: “We found two sites that were respawning cookies, including one site — Hulu.com — where both flash and cache cookies were employed to make identifiers more persistent. The cache cookie method used Etags, and is capable of unique tracking even where all cookies are blocked by the user and ‘private browsing mode’ is enabled.” (The authors are from The University of California at Berkeley, Worcester Polytechnic and the University of Wyoming. The emphasis is mine.)

Shortly after the report by Stanford’s Jonathan Mayer surfaced last week, Microsoft announced that it would stop the use of the so-called super cookies on MSN. A few days after the UC Berkeley report was published, Hulu announced in a blog post: “Upon reading the research report, we acted immediately to investigate and address the issues identified. This included suspending our use of the services of the outside vendor mentioned in the study.”

Hulu says that the super cookie technology was used by two of their outside vendors, an attempt, the report notes, by Hulu to absolve itself of responsibility. You can decide for yourself if you buy that. But more to the point, what can you do to defend yourself?

Some super cookies live in the cache, MCITP Online TrainingFree MCTS Training –  which is where the browser stores Web pages you’ve visited recently. By clearing the cache, you’ll get rid of them. That works, but there are two caveats: Dumping the cache will slow down your browser. That’s because cached Web sites load right away; without the cache the browser has to render them from scratch. And when you visit that site again, a new super cookie will glom on to your browser.

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