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Lots of Internet users have most likely heard the saying that “data is the new currency.” Of course, information has been important throughout the whole history of humankind, but the emergence of the digital world revealed just how powerful it could be. Millions of user-profiles circulate in ad networks to be used in future ad campaigns to enhance product placement.
And that’s not necessarily bad. Seeing relevant advertisements saves time and helps in making the correct purchase decision. However, the problem arises when collected data is misused, as was revealed during the Cambridge Analytica scandal when illegally obtained user-data was used to influence political landscapes. Another problem is user consent. Sadly, a lot of data is gathered without user permission.
Over the last decade, the interest in online privacy grew tremendously, and we believe knowledge is paramount for online safety. So in this article, we’d like to elaborate on what is web tracking and enumerate contemporary tracking methods.
What is web tracking?
Web tracking is a process of monitoring users activities and behavioural patterns on the World Wide Web. First of all, web tracking is used to enhance the browsing experience, such as saving user timezone and language settings, geographical location, user credentials, and alike. This is used to provide the most comfortable website browsing experience.
However, tracking extends far beyond this primary aim. On most occasions, it’s used to track online purchases, clicks on ads, time spent on the website, time until the payment has been made, and so on. The more information a website gets – the more accurate predictions they can make to lure the user into coming back and making another purchase. According to privacy extension Ghostery developers, “79 percent of websites globally are secretly tracking your personal data.”
On the other hand, US law enforcement will soon be able to track users online without a warrant, which you can read about on our blog post. To summarize, online tracking is so far ahead of privacy regulations it’s nearly impossible to avoid it without going offline. Now let’s take a look at the concrete web tracking methods.
Tracking via IP address
This is one of the oldest and for a long time, the most popular tracking method. Each device on the Internet has an IP address by which it can be identified. It is a crucial part of the Internet structure, by knowing the IP address of the website your browser knows where to direct the traffic. And vice versa, by knowing your IP address the server hosting the website knows how to reach you.
Internet service providers issue IP addresses, and they are linked to users’ geographical location. This way, websites know where you are coming from and can structure themselves accordingly to your region. Google search engine also returns results based on the geographical location of the IP address. Same goes for geographical content restrictions.
It’s easy to bypass IP tracking by using a VPN, which enables changing the IP address from the list of servers. That’s why tracking by IP address is almost always coupled with other, harder to avoid tracking methods.
Cookies and supercookies
However, since it collects vast amounts of information, cookies can and are used for tracking. It’s easy to get rid of locally stored cookies because they can simply be deleted. But it’s way more challenging to get rid of a supercookie, which is issued by the Internet Service Providers instead of the website. Supercookies are no longer stored locally but injected at the network level and can track user behaviour throughout the whole browsing session. Verizon, an American telecommunications giant, has even been fined $1.35 million for tracking via supercookies.
Browser fingerprint is an astonishingly accurate way of tracking users online. Since the web browser is your gateway to the Internet, it gives away a lot of information necessary for online communication. This information can be aggregated to form a user profile, which is independent of the IP address and does not require cookies. Browser fingerprinting has grown in popularity with the emergence of responsive websites that collect information about users’ graphic settings to provide the best website view possible.
There’s an ongoing struggle of what information can websites request, and what is beyond their requirements. One way or another, without additional privacy protection a lot of websites can know your graphic settings and language preference, version of your browser, version of your operating system, what browser extensions you use, screen resolution, device memory and many other settings. A study by Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that “only one in 286,777 other browsers will share its fingerprint.”
This makes tracking via browser fingerprint a prevalent contemporary method with high accuracy rate.
There are more tracking methods, such as Canvas fingerprinting, web beacons, session replay, and alike. All of them have different tracking techniques and require separate defence mechanisms, so for those interested in online privacy, it’s best to study each one individually and make necessary changes to your web browser.
Our Virtual Private Network NordVPN was developed to target some of the key tracking methods. It bypasses tracking via IP address by rerouting data-traffic from IPS through one of our no-logs servers, and CyberSec feature further enhances browsing security.
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