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How to stop Facebook, Google+, and Twitter from tracking you

You realize how much your browsing is centrally tracked, right? Or do you? Here's how to keep those busybodies off your tail

I conducted a completely nonscientific, haphazard public poll at a bar one evening last week. I asked a variety of people if they thought that Facebook knew what sites they visit that aren't Facebook. The results were all over the map, with many folks laughing and saying, "Probably, right?"

I then asked them: "If it's true that Facebook is tracking your browsing habits, would that a problem for you?" Most answered yes, reflected for a second, looked a little concerned, and asked me if it were true.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Take a tour of Facebook's greatest missteps in the slideshow, "Facebook's biggest faceplants." | Get the latest news and insight on the tech industry from the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

The answer is that yes, it's true -- but not for every site. Those of us who know how the Web works know that every time you visit a page with a Facebook, Google+, or Twitter link, the code behind that link actually comes from Facebook or Twitter servers, so if you're surfing to that page with the same browser that you're currently logged into Facebook or Twitter with, then they know you're on that site. They know how long you spent on that site, how often you visit, and so forth. It's all very simple to do. Yet most people are cheerfully oblivious to this fact.

The informed few take special precautions to eliminate or at least reduce their exposure. Several browser plug-ins can help control cookie dispensation -- and some browsers have a form of this capability built right in. The default for all of them, however, is to allow all cookies. Thus, millions of people blithely allow their Internet movements to be tracked by anyone with enough of a footprint, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And this information is not anonymous. It's tied to the account, which in many cases is tied directly to your identity. If someone at any of these companies wants to find out what you -- specifically you -- do online, it's a matter of a simple search. Ta-daa.

There's no getting around Google without the use of tor or anonymizing proxies, which can be annoying and slow, but using plug-ins like Track Me Not that send random search queries to Google from Firefox means that your actual search queries are mixed in with dozens of others and determining what you actually searched for becomes more challenging. Coupling that with the use of Gmail via IMAP and never logging into a Google service further reduces the amount of data that can be gathered.

For normal people, this situation is extremely difficult to control. It's easy enough to remember to lock your door when you leave your house, but this requires careful inspection of relatively arcane cookies in your browser, not to mention the problems related to disabling certain cookies for certain sites and thus breaking the session. Rather than simply closing your own drapes, it's more like trying to close the drapes of all your neighbors, and making sure that no cars drive by. It's simply impractical.

The common solution to this is ornery, but functional: Use a different browser. I relegate Chrome to this task and use it exclusively for social networking and anything tied to common cookies, like Google. The kind and trustworthy folks at Facebook, Google, and Twitter must think that all I do is go to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and this page, because that's all that browser does. Is that a waste of local resources? Sure. Chrome is chewing on a vsize of 950MB right now and consuming some CPU cycles. Is the trade-off worth it? Most definitely.

When I mentioned this scenario to those concerned folks at the bar, they were all genuinely puzzled. Why would anyone do such a thing? It's like wearing two pairs of underwear, right? When I detailed how this method protects your privacy, some got it and vowed to do the same thing.

Others didn't get it at all and didn't care (and after a few beers, who cares about privacy, amirite?). They are either the vanguard of a much more open and relaxed society that doesn't get upset when highly personal information is readily available to faceless people behind faceless servers and could easily be made available to anyone, or they're going to be the ones getting fired when leaked data shows their late-night adult video browsing habits in excruciating detail. In fact, with the new Facebook Timeline, they may not need a leak at all, it'll just show up on their page. Hooray.

Personally, I'm not taking any chances. I'll be keeping my social network interactions firewalled in their own browser. Shouldn't you?


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