Internet Tracking: Why We’re Being Followed And How To Cover Your Digital Tracks

Animated graphic of three people inspecting a laptop for how they are being tracked on the internet

Have you ever noticed that the ads you see online seem suspiciously relevant to your interests? That’s because you’re being tracked whenever you surf the web via a web browser on your computer, or through an app on your smartphone or other internet-connected devices. If you’re not sure how to feel about that fact, at least know this: all of us are being tracked, all the time, whenever we’re online. 

Whenever you hop online, be it from your personal computer, smartphone, or other internet-connected devices, you’re using an online identity that’s called an IP address. You receive your IP address from your internet service provider (ISP), and once you’re online and identifiable through your IP address, the web pages you visit can start collecting information about you.

Starting to question whether you should ever visit another website again? Don’t worry too much: you and your personal data aren’t necessarily at risk just because you access online content. With that said, it’s a good idea to understand how and why websites collect your data when you’re online. To that end, let’s explore what internet tracking means and what you can do to cover your digital tracks.

What Does Internet Tracking Mean?

It’s pretty common knowledge that when you’re accessing web content online, your ISP is tracking your behavior and logging what you do. Once your ISP has your data, though – even if you never explicitly consented to give it to them – they can sell that information to advertisement entities, a fact that’s generally less well-known.

These advertisers use internet tracking (sometimes called the browser or digital tracking) to track your behavior and execute actions ranging from good and well-intentioned to malicious and unscrupulous. Internet tracking can provide users, for instance, with advertisements and content that’s relevant to their interests and in alignment with what they’re searching for online. However, it can also be used to disseminate your personal data to third-party threat actors who want to sell your data for their monetary benefit.

Consider, for example, that you want to manage your portfolio of financial investments online. This is a common scenario for many internet users, considering that according to recent surveys, 62% prefer to manage their investment with an app on an internet-connected device like a tablet or smartphone. 

An entity that’s tracking your activity on that app could potentially sell your sensitive financial data to malicious threat actors. This is the ugly side of internet tracking, and it contributes to countless instances of users having their data compromised by third parties and becoming susceptible to cyber threats that target their banking and related financial information.

Many of these malicious, third-party threat actors are the same ones responsible for executing common scams such as phishing that prey on sensitive user data. Internet users commonly access unsecured websites (the ones that don’t display a lock icon next to their URL) only to fall prey to scammers who trick users into providing their private information. Even if a user is savvy enough to recognize a phishing scam and doesn’t provide their information, websites can still track users using tracking cookies that store information related to user behavior on that site.

This is just a glimpse into one of the ways that websites track user behavior and store their data, but there are various other methods websites use to track users.

Common Internet Tracking Methods

Tracking cookies are, without a doubt, still the most common method with which websites can track your online activity. In addition to cookies, though, websites commonly use several other methods to track user behavior and store it for future use. These popular tracking methods include account tracking, web bugs/beacons, browser fingerprinting, and more.

Let’s start with web beacons: these beacons, sometimes referred to as web bugs or tracking beacons, monitor your activity on a website such as the content you click on and access. Websites can also use these web beacons in email correspondence to see whether a user has opened an email. Account tracking is a method to keep tabs on user behavior on a specific online account, and it works while users are logged into their account in question. One caveat about account tracking is that users need to consent to it before their data can be collected. Finally, browser fingerprinting uses information such as your device’s operating system and your geographical location to track all of your behavior while online.

With so many methods that track and store user data for both good as well as decidedly bad reasons, you may wonder what you can do to prevent being tracked online. Let’s take a quick look at how a VPN can better secure your internet activity and shield you from unwanted tracking.

Tips To Prevent Internet Tracking

As is the case for the majority of modern internet users, you probably regularly access WiFi networks if you’re surfing the web on the go. WiFi is undoubtedly useful if you’re traveling or otherwise away from home and need to access online content, but it can also make you vulnerable to digital tracking. 

If you know that you’re constantly connecting to multiple WiFi networks, it’s highly recommended that you invest in a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your internet connection. With a VPN, the data that you send back and forth to online sources such as websites becomes encrypted via a remote server that masks your IP address. This encryption makes it so your ISP as well as would-be threat actors can’t see your internet activity or track your behavior across different websites. 

Aside from a VPN, you can take a few other steps to prevent online tracking and better safeguard your data. These methods include adjusting your privacy settings on all of the internet-enabled devices you commonly use such as your smartphone and desktop computer, using internet tracking blockers that deny tracking from web browsers and refusing to grant access to sites that want to enable cookies.

Wrapping Up

Internet tracking has never been more common than it is today, and many users may not know or understand why they’re being tracked in the first place. While digital tracking can provide online users with advertisements and content that’s relevant to their interests, it can also make them susceptible to cyber-attacks that malicious third parties carry out. 

Users can better understand how they’re being tracked online by becoming familiar with tracking methods such as web beacons, cookies, account tracking, and browser fingerprinting. Once you have a grasp on how these tracking methods work, decide what methods to prevent internet tracking work best for your needs, such as using a VPN, adjusting the privacy settings on your internet-enabled devices, and using internet tracking blockers to deny tracking while using web browsers.