NEW YORK — Facebook and other companies routinely track your online surfing habits to better target ads at you. Two web browsers now want to help you fight back in what’s becoming an escalating privacy arms race.
New protections in Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers aim to prevent companies from turning “cookie” data files used to store sign-in details and preferences into broader trackers that take note of what you read, watch and research on other sites.
Lance Cottrell, creator of the privacy service Anonymizer, said Apple’s effort was particularly significant, as it takes aim as a technique developed by tracking companies to override users’ attempts to delete their cookies.
Unlike Firefox, Safari makes these protections automatic in updates coming Tuesday to iPhones and iPads and a week later to Mac computers.
To get the protections, you’ll have to break your habit of using Google’s Chrome browser, which by some estimates has more than half of the worldwide browser usage. Safari and Firefox have less than 20 per cent combined.
Even then, Safari and Firefox can’t entirely stop tracking. For starters, they won’t block tracking when you’re using Facebook or Google itself. Nor can they help much when you use phone or tablet apps, unless the app happens to embed Safari, as Twitter’s iPhone app does.
But Will Strafach, a mobile security expert who is designing data security tools for phones, said imperfect protection is better than no protection. He notes that burglars can still break down a door, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother locking it.
Cookies and other trackers can be used by companies to keep track of who you are as you move from website to website. The companies can build a digital profile as you, say, read about Democratic or Republican viewpoints, buy a particular brand of pet food or indulge in the entire season of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
News, video and other third-party sites use Google and Facebook cookies to customize ads to your hobbies and interests, rather than hawking products you might never buy. That’s why you might see an ad for shoes soon after searching for them elsewhere.
Apple says its tests show that some popular websites are embedded with more than 70 such trackers. Many of these are from Facebook and Google, which are expected to command a combined 57 per cent of the $107 billion U.S. digital advertising market this year, the research group eMarketer estimates.
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