Last week I wrote a story about how none of the tools at consumers’ disposal to avoid being tracked online actually work. There are many things you can do to minimize how much information about you is gathered online. Tools like browser settings and cookie-deleting super-cookies may reduce the number of companies gathering data about you, and how much they can get.
But none of those tools will do what some people want: Block all tracking, everywhere, all the time. Each one can be foiled, either by high-tech tracking devices like beacons or by the simple settings of your own computer.
Well, a number of readers wrote in BoingBoing to tell me that I was an idiot. Some even said they have discovered the magic app for online privacy. “I think this is wrong Chris,” someone with the screen name “Silner” wrote. “TOR Adblock Disconnect all seem to work fine.”
I’m actually something of a technophobe. I treat my computer like I used to treat my old Honda – drive it until it stops working, and then start swearing at it. So I called up Ondrej Krehel, information security officer and all-around computer genius at our sister company Identity Theft 911. He reviewed all the comments to see whether any of the tools they suggest could squash all tracking devices and render people completely anonymous online.
Ondrej’s findings in a nutshell: Nope.
All of the suggestions made by readers are good for privacy, because each one will limit the number of companies that can track you online and the amount of information they can gather. But none of them is the silver bullet, the one tool that can protect your private data online.
So here, in order, are the suggestions made by you, our valued readers, followed by Ondrej showing where the vulnerabilities lie.
– “Adam from London” writes: “Ha I’m running Firefox with Flash blocker and the Panopticlick site doesn’t collect anything. It takes 20 seconds to install the flash blocker and it stops flash from running on any site you haven’t specifically allowed.”
Ondrej says: Flash blocker only blocks Flash content, like Flash cookies. That’s important, because some Flash cookies are created to re-spawn after you delete them, making them impossible to remove from your computer once they’re already there. But Flash blocker can’t block regular cookies, which aren’t Flash-based. And they can’t stop Panopticlick or anyone else from seeing your computer’s settings and using that to create a unique identifier for you.
“It’s a very specific tool that only blocks Flash video,” Ondrej says.
– “Jane” writes: “I’ve got a program which assigns a random IP address whenever I want to surf the web anonymously.”
Ondrej says: Using a randomized IP address may prevent online trackers from figuring out certain things about you, like your exact location. But it won’t do much to protect you from other tracking tools.
“If I have a cookie on my computer, it doesn’t what IP address I have, it’s still gathering content,” says Ondrej. “Cookies store the information on that user independent of the IP address.”
– “Silner” and “Ufa” – Told us to check out TOR Adblock Disconnect, above.
Ondrej says: TOR allows you connect to the internet via a network of outside computers, which does the same thing as Jane’s suggestion: Gives you a randomized IP address. And it has the same effect, blocking trackers from figuring out where you are while still allowing them to learn everything else about what you do online.
“The cookies still work,” Ondrej says. “And TOR can be very slow depending on who else is using it, so it’s not the way to go if you want to download big things on the internet.”
“Jack Tripper” – Gave us many tools to try, including ad-blocking software, BetterPrivacy to remove Flash cookies, and NoScript to bloc JacaScript.
Ondrej says: Each of these tools comes with its own set of problems. Ad-blocking programs like Adblock Plus from Firefox don’t block Flash cookies. They also can’t block tracking technologies that are not based on cookies, like Microsoft Silverlight or HTML 5. All the information you save to a cloud, including data you post on Facebook and Twitter, and anything you write or save to your e-mail account, isn’t protected.
“If you have content on Facebook or Gmail or Yahoo mail, there’s no way to turn that off,” Ondrej says.
So again, each person who wrote in has a good idea. That’s why I wanted to write about this, to give more readers the chance to learn about other tools that may reduce their exposure to online tracking.
But according to Ondrej, who eats and breathes this stuff, anybody who uses these tools should do so with an ounce of caution. Because none of them can shut off the online trackers entirely.
“I’m not saying it’s useless,” Ondrej says. “It helps. But it only handles small pieces. These all can limit your exposure to being tracked online, but they can not keep you entirely safe.”
Image: Lindsey T, via Flickr.com