How to opt out of tracking cookies

Before we discuss different ways to opt out of tracking cookies, let’s see what a tracking cookie is and what it does in a few simple words.

You may already know what a regular cookie is. If not, they are just small text files distributed by websites designed to reside in your computer to store your preferences. But not all cookies are tracking cookies.

What is a tracking cooking anyway?

Tracking cookies are also small text files like regular cookies and they reside on your PC. But they are specifically created and placed by websites to track your web activity and show you customized ads that are aligned with your interests. And that’s a privacy concern. But being text files, they are not at all malicious like viruses or other harmful programs.

We are living in a cyber-age where almost everything we do on the internet is traceable. And businesses are making the most of this opportunity to gather as much online behavioral data as possible for displaying highly targeted ads for their customers while they surf the internet.

But what raises the privacy red flag is that this collected personal information is inaccessible and no one knows how it is being used. Although businesses track online activity of internet users to primarily sell their goods, this crucial personal data can get misused if they end up in the hands of the wrong people. According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft continues to be the leading consumer complaint since 1999. And that’s a serious privacy issue!

An overview of the privacy policies of websites

Most web browsers offer universal privacy settings that you can select and use. This universal policy has been brought in place to level out the differing privacy policies of various websites. This allows you to choose a privacy setting that matches your privacy concern. Most reputed websites have a comprehensive privacy policy section that clearly discloses how they handle the user data they collect through a standard format or protocol known as P3P or Platform for Privacy Preferences Project.

P3P allows browsers to help users understand the privacy practice of any given website in a much smarter way and also relieves them from the requirement of reading the privacy policies of every website that they visit. This format also enables users to set their browsers to behave in a certain manner when it opens up a site with a particular privacy policy. Websites adopting P3P format make their privacy policy open to their users and hence it is open to the public for scrutiny.

Managing Cookies to Preserve Privacy in Major Browsers

This brings us to the topic of managing cookies. You can manage cookies in several ways to help protect your privacy online. You can enable cookies, disable them, or clear them as per your preference.

You can get rid of the cookies that are stored in the ‘Cookie’ folder of your browser. But of course, every browser will have different steps to delete cookies. For instance, on the latest Google Chrome browser, you can clear your browsing data by going to Settings à Advanced à Clear Browsing Data, which opens up the following screen.

Clearing Cookies on Chrome Browser

You can choose to clear only the cookies by just selecting the ‘Cookies and other site data’ option and deselecting the other two on the ‘Basic’ tab and clicking on ‘Clear Data’ button. The ‘Advanced’ tab gives more options that you can select or deselect before hitting the ‘Clear Data’ button.

Firefox (ver. 57.0.2) browser takes online privacy a notch higher and offers the option of preventing websites from tracking you. To prevent tracking, go to “Options” from the main menu, select “Privacy & Security” à and click on the ‘Always’ option under ‘Send websites a “Do Not Track” signal that you don’t want to be tracked’ heading in the ‘Tracking Protection’ section.

Prevent Privacy Tracking in FireFox Browser

Firefox also gives you the option to enable or disable tracking cookies or adjust the level of protection from tracking cookies through the options provided under ‘Use Tracking Protection to block known trackers’.

Firefox Tracking Protection to Block Cookies

All major browsers provide similar features to protect your privacy and stop ‘tracking-cookies’ from keeping track of your online activity.

Different Tracking cookies and ways to block them

There are primarily two types of tracking cookies, the ad tracking cookies, and analytics tracking cookies. Both types of cookies can be first-party or third-party in nature, i.e. it can be either placed by the website itself (the first-party) or placed by a third-party site.

Ad tracking cookies, as the name suggests, keeps track of your online behavior in general and how you interact with ads in particular. On the other hand, the analytics tracking cookies record your online behavior to fine-tune marketing and ad campaigns. The data from these cookies are then transmitted to analytics tracking servers like Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager, where it is processed to make meaningful metrics data, which is then analyzed to tweak and fine-tune ad campaigns and marketing strategies.

Although not relevant to this post, there are other cookies that store crucial configuration information. Most popular websites like Amazon, Facebook, eBay and others use these cookies to offer a customized browsing experience to the users on their sites. In fact, these cookies are so critical that it’s almost impossible to access their site if you delete them from your device.

Due to this reason, it won’t be wise to block all the cookies on your device. And it will also be a cumbersome activity to sift through and delete only the tracking cookies manually. But worry not; you can still prevent cookies from tracking your online activity through other methods provided by reputed sites.

Online behavioral tracking is being monitored closely by FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and other government agencies to make sure that this activity is not breaching the privacy of internet users. Owing partly to this close scrutiny, online behemoths like Google and Yahoo now allow their users to manage their privacy settings and control what type of ads these sites will show you as you surf the web.

Opting out of ads via Gmail and Yahoo

Controlling Privacy in Google

To opt out of ads in Google, you must first log in to your Google account and go to Privacy Checkup page. You can also go to this page yourself by clicking on the ‘Privacy’ link under any of your Google accounts à ‘Your privacy, security, and controls’ (by scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the page) à Take Control à Take The Privacy Checkup.

Going to Privacy Checkup in Google

Then Click on ‘Start Now’ button, which will open up a page that gives you several options to control your privacy on the internet.

Google Privacy Settings

But what we are more interested here is to control the kind of ads that show on Google sites. To manage that click on the “Manage Your Ads Settings” button under the ‘Make ads more relevant to you’ section. This opens up a page that allows you to turn the Ad Personalization feature On or Off and choose what type of ads you want to be shown by choosing the topics that you like or don’t like.

Ad Personalization and Topic Selection in Google

Controlling Privacy in Yahoo

To opt out and opt in of Yahoo ads shown to you on the web, you need to visit Yahoo’s Ad Interest Manager page.

Yahoo Ads Interest Manager

The page allows you to completely ‘Opt-in’ or ‘Opt Out’ of the advertising choices or choose to edit or de-select the interest categories under the ‘Your Interest Categories’ section. This section will list your interest categories based on your previous online activity.

Opt out of ads using Digital Advertising Alliance

Digital Advertising Alliance allows you to opt out of several ad tracking cookies placed by major social media sites and other ad tracking services. For instance, social media sites like Facebook uses tracking cookies to analyze your online behavior and show you ads tailored to your interests. Digital Advertising Alliance enables you to delete such ad tracking cookies placed by sites like Facebook.

Using Ad block plugins

You can prevent tracking cookies from spying on your online activity by installing ad block plugins that come along with most major browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer and so on. There are a number of good ad block plugins that you can find on the web by searching ‘ad block plugins’ in Google.

Block 3rd party cookies

Block 3rd party cookies to get rid of a major chunk of tracking cookies. 3rd-party cookies are primarily used for ad tracking which forms a big portion of the tracking cookies. These cookies are placed by a site other than the one you have visited. For example, if you visit eBay and eBay places a cookie of another site on your device, then that’s a 3rd-party cookie. But you can easily block these cookies from your browser settings.

To block 3rd-party cookies on Chrome browser, click on the main menu (the three dots that you see on the top-right of the browser) and select ‘Settings’

Blocking 3rd Party Cookies in Chrome

In the ‘Settings’ page, click on the ‘Content Settings’ option to open up the ‘Content Settings’ page. Then click on ‘Cookies’. This will take you to the ‘Cookies’ page where you can block or unblock 3rd-party cookies.

Chrome 3rd Party Cookies Blocking page

Similarly, all the major browsers offer the option to block 3rd party tracking cookies to preserve your privacy.

Closing thoughts

These are some of the best methods you can employ to block ‘tracking-cookies’ and safeguard your online privacy. But businesses, on the other hand, are one step ahead of the game and are finding new and creative ways to track online activity of users by circumventing these barriers. The perma-cookie introduced by Verizon is one such brazen tactic to track online behavior. These perma-cookies are ‘tracking-cookies’ but resistant to the normal cookie elimination methods.

In response to the rising cases of identity thefts and privacy breaches, the FTC had come up with a proposal back in 2010 to introduce a ‘Do Not Track’ feature on the browser which will allow consumers to signal whether he/she wishes to be tracked or not by businesses or not. However, seven years down the line, the FTC initiative still remains on the paper as a proposal, reports recode.net.

Despite all the preventive measures illustrated earlier to opt out of tracking cookies, the general rule of thumb of online etiquette is to make as less personal information available as possible on the web. The lesser the information in your personal profile, lower are the odds of it getting misused by advertisers or miscreants.

Now I would like to hear your thoughts on this topic.

What methods have you implemented to protect your personal information on the web? Please let me know by leaving a comment.

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