Monday, December 27, 2010

Stop Facebook from tracking you, with Disconnect

I've been using a superb new online privacy oriented Chrome extension called Disconnect. It stops 3rd parties and search engines from tracking what you do and what you search for.

Spurred by the unmitigated spread of Facebook Connect, Google engineer Brian Kennish wrote the open source extension to give users greater control over their online privacy. Kennish observesIf you’re a typical web user, you’re unintentionally sending your browsing and search history with your name and other personal information to third parties and search engines whenever you’re online.

I have found using the extension to be quite enlightening and educational, as it informs you how many requests are being blocked at any given website.

In the following example, I'm browsing the homepage for The Globe and Mail (a major Canadian newspaper), and I can see that 6 tracking requests have been blocked--2 from Facebook, and 4 from Google.

Why should Facebook know what news articles I'm reading?

Personally, I'm not entirely comfortable with the fact that Facebook and Google are trying to track what news articles I'm reading. How do you feel about it? It's... somewhat insidious, don't you think? In the above example, I'm not even logged in to the respective services.

The extension also allows you to depersonalize your searches--in other words, your search history cannot be simply connected to you. The other functional aspect that is very useful about Disconnect, is that I can easily toggle the blocking for specific services (for example, if I need to temporarily log in to a site that uses Facebook Connect).

I recommend giving the extension a try--even just for informational purposes. You may be surprised--even shocked--to learn which major services are trying to track you, on what sites (The scary confirmation dialog that pops up when you install Disconnect is particularly ironic -- it warns you that the extension can access your data on all websites). You will realize that your internet behavior has become a commodity that is being sold. If you're not a Chrome user (and why aren't you?), take heart--Kennish plans to release Disconnect for Firefox next year.

Judicious use of extensions like Disconnect, along with prudent cookie management, allow you--for the time being--to exert a degree of control over who is watching you, and what they track. As Kennish declares, "They can't take our data without our permission anymore."