How to shake off ad trackers this festive season

With Black Friday coming up and Christmas on the horizon, it’s likely you’ll take more notice of the personalized ads that fill your browser every day. While some users have no problem with these ads, the way advertisers handle user data and track us is a concern for many.

This article will explain how advertisers follow us around the web, what this means for user privacy and how we can protect ourselves from ad trackers this festive season.

What are cookies, and how do they work?

Cookies are small pieces of code that are used sort of like tracking beacons by webpages, that are stored on a user’s computer when they visit a website.

Users should be notified by an alert telling them about the types of cookies on any given webpage, which should also allow them to opt-out of their use. However, declining cookies can result in reduced site functionality (like restricting access to articles or other content), or even booting a user off the page.

Furthermore, if you’ve already accepted cookies once, sites will often automatically accept them for you on consequential visits. Users are unlikely to remember that these sites will have cookies tracking them around the web.

There are different cookies for different functions. Some provide security on check-out pages, others keep users logged into their online accounts; while others are used by advertisers to present ads for products (over and over) that consumers have previously searched for online.

These “ad trackers” are simply third-party cookies that track consumers as they browse the web, modifying their advertising approach based on each user’s online behavior. Advertisers also use this data to build a personal profile on the user, which can be used to determine what other products can be successfully pushed to them.

Third-party cookies are an invasion of privacy. They follow users around the web, monitoring activity and behavior, with the primary purpose of advertising based on each user’s surfing history. Other than pushing ads, it can be argued that ad trackers do nothing to genuinely improve a user’s browsing experience.

Thankfully, it is possible to shake off these types of cookies. With a little help from a few trusted tools, you can avoid being profiled and having your online activity exploited.

What tools will help me avoid being tracked?

As users have become increasingly privacy conscious, companies have launched products to help them take back control of their online lives. As a result, there are now many tools that can confuse or block third-party cookies.

Browser extensions such as Ghostery are an example of this. Ghostery blocks ad-tracking cookies from your browser, meaning you’ll no longer be pestered with re-targeted ads. It also gives users the ability to see exactly what cookies each web page is attempting to use.

Privacy Badger, a browser add-on by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is another product that is effective at blocking third-party cookies, and markets itself as able to effectively block all ads that violate user consent.

If you’d rather commit to an entire privacy browser instead of downloading an extension, Brave is a good option. Brave is free to use and has a built-in adblocker.

Firefox is also a mainstream browser which understands its users’ wish for privacy. By default, the browser’s Enhanced Tracking Protection feature blocks third-party tracking requests.

By choosing your search engine carefully, you can also give yourself an extra layer of protection. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that will block ad trackers from following you, and also ensures you only connect to websites securely via HTTPS encrypted whenever possible.

Finally, there are a number of VPNs which provide ad blocking options as well as encrypting your data. These include CyberGhost, Torguard and Private Internet Access, among others.

Using a reliable VPN is also a good idea if you want to prevent being shown ads targeted at your IP address, as they reroute your data and disguise your IP address.

Taking back control over your data

Advertisers take advantage of user data available online to target consumers with ads targeted specifically at them. This personalization, combined with tracking technology, leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and often occurs without our knowledge.

Using tools like the ones covered in this post will help you protect yourself from being profiled by advertisers and tracked by these kinds of ads. Ultimately, taking matters into your own hands is the best way to protect your privacy and data from these third-parties.

About the author

Callum Tennent (@TennentCallum) is the Site Editor at VPN review website A member of the International Association of Privacy Professionals and former consumer technology journalist, he specializes in VPN technology, information security, and online privacy.