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The Nonprofit’s Guide to Online Safety: Safer Online Searches


This post is part of our Nonprofit's Guide to Online Safety series.

These days, online searches are an inevitable part of being online. But have you ever wondered why the ads you see online can be so precisely aware of your tastes and interests? Today, we are going to look at digital tracking and what you can do to protect your privacy when surfing the web.

It Starts with Cookies

A cookie is a piece of information that is saved by your web browser and/or software whenever you use the Internet. Cookies help save you time online, for example, by allowing you not to type out the full URL of websites you visit frequently and by recognizing your devices at the time of log-in. At the same time, they can be used to serve you targeted ads and share information about your browsing experience.

There are several types of cookies:

  • First-party cookies are ones that are placed by the sites you visit when browsing online. Sites like Amazon and Netflix use them to make your experience on their platforms more efficient, for example, by remembering items in your shopping cart or what movie you were just watching.
  • Third-party cookies are ones that are placed by others, typically an advertising network that has partnered with the website that you are visiting or an analytics company that delivers information about the ways people use their site. Some of these third parties can also place cookies to monitor your behaviour over time or follow you around the web in what is known as ‘digital tracking’.

On mobile devices, this form of tracking works a little differently, since companies don’t have access to cookies in the same way as they do when you are browsing on your computer. In this case, third parties use what are known as ‘device identifiers’––such as Apple iOS’s Identifiers for Advertisers (“IDFA”) and Google Android’s Advertising ID––to monitor app use on your device.

How to Safeguard Your Privacy When Browsing

If you’d like to limit your exposure to digital tracking and ‘digital fingerprinting’, there are several easy steps you can take:

On Your Browser:

You can check the settings of your browser of choice to look at your available privacy options. This is commonly done by looking for the ‘Help’ and/or ‘Tools’ bar, which allow you to delete stored cookies and control their placement. Most browsers also offer add-ons and plug-ins to block and/or delete them. If you are using antivirus software (see our previous post for more information!), it will typically offer options to manage cookies.

Private (aka Incognito) Browsing: Many browsers offer the option to keep your web activity hidden to third parties. By turning on ‘private’ or ‘incognito’ mode, you disallow the retention of cookies along with information about your search records and downloads. That said, not all private browsing modalities are equal, and some will allow cookies used during your private session to communicate information to third parties. You can perform a quick online search to learn more about your default browser’s privacy settings to learn about how they work.

Do Not Track: Most browsers also offer the option not to be tracked across the web. Activating this setting will send a signal to every website that you visit to let them know you do not consent to being tracked from site to site.

Opting Out: Some websites will also allow you to set preferences to disable targeted ads based on your online searches, often through what are known as ‘opt-out cookies’. If you’d like to learn more about this option, the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) offer tools for opting out of targeted advertising.

On Your Smartphone:

If you’d like to reset identifiers on Apple iOS, follow this pathway: Settings > Privacy > Advertising > Reset Advertising Identifier. If you’re an Android user, the pathway is as follows: Google settings > Ads > Reset advertising ID.

There are also a number of platforms and tools that you can use to enhance the privacy of your online searches.

  • Ghostery is a free, open-source browser extension built with privacy and security in mind. It is available for both computers and mobile. It works by blocking trackers and ads, and the company has announced that they will soon launch a privacy browser and ad-free search engine.
  • DuckDuckGo is an internet search engine that is also built to protect a user’s privacy, but goes one step further by avoiding personalized search results (also known as ‘filter bubbles’). This means that users all see the same search results for any given term.
  • Mozilla’s Firefox browser is another excellent choice for users who care about personal data privacy. The browser, which is backed by a nonprofit, blocks third-party cookies by default and also gives you lots of information about the trackers that websites attempted to leave on your device before being blocked by Firefox. It also gives you the option to manage how your location and microphone are shared. To learn more about their Personal Data Promise, check out their page!

Further Reading

The Electronic Frontiers Foundation’s Cover Your Tracks platform lets you test your browser to find out how well protected you are from tracking and digitalfingerprinting.

Want to learn more about online tracking? Read Mozilla’s article, What you need to know about online tracking (and how to stop it)

Want to enhance your knowledge of Internet Safety practices? GCF has put together a self-paced tutorial complete with videos and a quiz at the end to test what you have learned!