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What are trackers exactly?

Summary
public
This article explains cookies, canvas mapping, and web beacon, all are different types of web trackers used in online platforms to track users' activities. It also covers having trackers could be useful or harmful for the users to decide for themselves.

Let’s play a game!  

Let’s Imagine that Rashid was assigned to spy on someone, so he decides to hide under a bush facing their house, and every time they leave home, he takes notes: 

  • Wearing black and grey 

  • Sports shoes 

  • Loose hair 

  • Carrying books 

  • Taking big steps 

Rashid whispers into his walkie-talkie: Lady X might be a college student or a teacher. She is casual in her style. She loves classic aromatic colors. She seems in a hurry, and because she leaves home at different times every day, she might not have a fixed job. 

In the digital world, this is called web tracking – the ability and activity by which a website tracks your online behavior and collects information about you. We will explain how as we continue the story. 

 

The next day, Rashid sends two little boys to play next to her house. As she leaves the building, the concierge calls her “Fatima.” The first boy hears that and runs to Rashid to inform him about her name. Then, the other boy follows him to tell Rashid that he heard Fatima tell the concierge about guests coming over tonight. 

In the digital world, these boys act like cookies – small tools with a size up to 4 Kilo Bytes  used by websites to collect your information while you browse. They can be transient cookies that are deleted by your browser once you exit a certain website or they can be persistent cookies that get stored by your browser for the next visit. For example, you log in to Gmail and find your email address already there. Or you write in the address tab “f” and Facebook is the first option that appears because a cookie saved it as a frequently visited website. Cookies save different types of similar information to make your user experience efficient and friendly.  

 

Back to Fatima, Rashid is now equipped with a machine that helps him track the physiological details of Fatima. Upon using this machine, you find that her heart rate is X, sugar level is Y, volume of voice is Z, etc.  

In the digital world, this is called Canvas Fingerprinting, an advanced way of tracking that saves different information during your browsing activity such as browser type, operating system type and version, and installed graphics hardware, which altogether combined with other specifications make a unique tracking of your device, as if your computer/mobile device has a fingerprint. While some websites may ask your permission to use cookies, Canvas Fingerprinting, as a tracking tool tends to be more invisible, and can be used to distinctly track you across websites. 

Cut to the last scene in Fatima’s story. Now Rashid simply wants to know if Fatima left home or not. He places a blank white paper on her doorstep, and every time the paper gets dirty, he knows that Fatima left her house. 
 
In the digital world, this white paper acts like a Web Beacon – another tracking tool that is very small invisible objects in the size of a pixel embedded in a webpage or email. Whenever you visit a page or open an email, this pixel-object gets downloaded as an image informing the server that the web page got visited or the email got opened. Therefore, you shouldn’t open emails from spammers you don’t trust, for they can easily hack your information. 

 

You have now learned the basics of digital tracking and if you’re wondering whether they’re good or bad, you’re the one to decide. Apart from the fact that some trackers might carry viruses to your computer or attempt to hack your password or other private information, digital tracking is used to your benefit through: 

     1. Improving your web experience 

Let’s say you feel like watching something on YouTube but don’t know what. Thanks to digital tracking, you will now enjoy a batch of top recommended videos selected for you based on previous videos you have watched. 

     2. Saving time 

Trackers save your information so that you don’t have to insert your username and password every time you log in and so that they can faster complete the sentence you type and guess what you’re looking for. 

     3. Saving your preferences 

Because of online tracking, you can save your favorite items or those you add to the shopping cart so that you don’t have to repeat the whole process every time you shop. 

     4. Finding what you want 

Now, this is debatable because the main reason trackers save your information is to sell it to third-parties for a lot of money. It helps third-parties find the perfect target for their products and this how you get bombarded with ads wherever you go. For example, you might google “how to lose weight” and then while watching YouTube, an ad for a fitness app pops up on your screen. 

 

Because some people think that online tracking can be creepy, annoying or intrusive, here are a few ways to deal with it: 

     1. Use search engines that don’t track you such as DuckDuckGo.com, StartPage.com, and Ecosia.com 

     2. Delete your search history and cookies within web browser applications 

     3. Simply activate the “Don’t Track Me Feature” available in certain browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox 

     4.  Install helpful extensions and plugins 

     5. Browse anonymously using InPrivate, Incognito features available in Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome browsers.  

We don’t need a tracking tool, but now that you’ve reached the last sentence, we can guess that you liked this article, and we hope to be right! 

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Last edited
05-06-2020
Reading time
4 Minutes

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Learn how to manage your browser to control the tracking activities, and ensure your tracking settings are managed properly to your liking!

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