You're Constantly Being Stalked Online—and You Don't Even Know It

Courtney Linder
·8 min read
You're Constantly Being Stalked Online—and You Don't Even Know It


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  • Apple has unveiled a new data privacy tool called App Tracking Transparency, which lets you block advertisers from tracking you between apps.

  • It's one of several methods you can use to stop third-party advertisers from following you around the internet.

  • Try turning off personalized ads on Chrome and Facebook, enabling "Do Not Track" in your browser, and turning off cookies to further protect yourself.

Today is Data Privacy Day, which is an international event to raise awareness and promote transparency around, well, data privacy. That means it's the perfect time to finally hunker down and figure out how to get those creepy ads to stop following you around all over the internet.

By now, it's normal to look up a new gaming laptop one time on Amazon, only to see it follow you over to an ad in your mobile game, an ad on your Instagram feed, and yet another ad on your Gmail app. And the stakes are high, as data breach scandals at companies like Cambridge Analytica, Capital One, and Experian have left hundreds of millions of people's personal data vulnerable.

But it doesn't have to be this way. With stricter data privacy laws in the European Union thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and backlash against predatory data collection practices in the U.S, some companies are beginning to introduce new features that give back some control to consumers.

So here's how to limit ad tracking across websites and apps, using several tools that are either already available, or will be shortly.

How Does Ad Tracking Work?

Photo credit: JakeOlimb - Getty Images
Photo credit: JakeOlimb - Getty Images


As smartphones and other internet-connected devices have become ubiquitous, so has targeted (or personalized) advertising. According to the market research firm Statista, the total ad spend in the U.S. last year rose to over $242.5 billion. Of that, companies directed about $123 billion toward internet advertising. That's thanks to the underlying technology, which isn't just reliable, but intelligent, too.

At its core, ad tracking relies on cookies, which are how web servers figure out that it's you returning to a website and not someone else. They build up a "profile" about you, which allows a site to customize and personalize your browsing experience. This includes product recommendations on Amazon or a clothing shop that shows a list of other clothes you might like based on what you last clicked. Cookiebot—a site that can analyze cookie compliance for businesses—aptly refers to cookies as "the memory of the internet."

The cookies we're talking about are third-party cookies. Usually, a website's monetization partners will place a cookie on the website. And because these third parties are often giant advertising conglomerates, they can track you across plenty of other websites in their network.

If you want a clear picture of just how invasive this practice has become, check out A Day in the Life of Your Data, an educational guide from Apple that shows you how much data advertisers could collect from one father visiting a playground with his daughter. (Spoiler: It's a lot.)

Where does all that data go? It's murky, considering the lack of data privacy regulation in most of the U.S. Sometimes the data is stored in your browser, and sometimes it's assigned a unique ID in your browser and then stored on a third-party server.

Here's the problem: Advertisers are making their clients happy, and consumers are finding products that are more suitable to them. Shouldn't this be a win-win? A 2020 brief from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission puts the issue into perspective succinctly: "To harness its value, targeted online advertising necessitates the mass collection of consumers’ data as they traverse cyberspace."

Advertisers have an incentive to collect as much data about you as possible in order to monetize what they've gleamed. They don't have an incentive to help keep your personal information under wraps. That's why it's so important to take back control—on your terms.

Method 1: Use Apple's "App Tracking Transparency" Feature in iOS 14

On average, each app on your phone includes six trackers from other companies with the sole intention to collect and sell your data in bulk. Fortunately, Apple is introducing a new tool in the next iOS 14 beta update that makes it much easier to block ad trackers. The "App Tracking Transparency" feature will roll out to all iPhones in the spring.

This feature will require apps to get your permission before tracking your data between other apps and websites. You'll be able to go under Settings to see which apps have requested to track you, and you can make changes accordingly. You'll see a pop-up dialogue box that gives you two prompts: "Allow" or "Ask App Not to Track."

So if you don't want Facebook to track you over to Amazon, you're in luck. The best part? Companies can't limit the functionality of their apps for users who don't want to be tracked.

Photo credit: Apple
Photo credit: Apple

It's worth noting that this new feature isn't just a matter of policy; there's a technical hard stop that prevents the app developer from seeing your advertising identifier (IDFA). This is basically a device identifier that makes it possible for third parties to track you within and across iOS apps.

Furthermore, Apple says if it learns a developer is still tracking users who have indicated they don't want to be tracked, "we will require that they update their practices to respect your choice, or their app may be rejected from the App Store."

💡 Tip: While you wait for the new update, you can limit app tracking on your iPhone.

Open Settings > Scroll down and tap on Privacy > Tap Advertising > Turn Limit Ad Tracking off.

You can also reset your IDFA from here, which will clear all data that advertisers have already collected on you, sort of like resetting your browser history. Make a regular habit of doing this to limit the hyper-specific conclusions that advertisers can draw about you.

Finally, you can select View Ad Information to see which apps and websites are tracking you.

Facebook is pretty irate about Apple's new App Tracking Transparency feature, since an overwhelming majority of the company's revenue comes from targeted advertising. Meanwhile, Google—another big player in the targeted advertising space—will no longer be using Apple IDFAs to track users, it announced. Instead, it will use its own IDFA alternative on apps like Maps and Chrome on iOS to keep these Apple privacy updates from impacting their ad business.

That said, you have options to deal with these pesky companies.

Method 2: Turn Off Personalized Ads in Google Chrome and Facebook

In a viral TikTok video, a digital marketer explains just how intrusive Google can be across its properties, like Chrome, Gmail, and YouTube. In the video, the woman explains there's a simple way to see all of the assumptions that Google has made about you, based on your activity across apps and websites.

And while you likely can't avoid being tracked across Google's services altogether, you can limit how invasive the resulting ads are. Head over to adssettings.google.com. You may need to sign in to see your data. Here, you can see a breakdown of all the information Google has collected on you.

Turn the slider to the off position next to "Ad personalization is ON." Now you should start to see ads that are specific to the content you're currently viewing (like boots on a hiking website), but not ads that are specific to you personally.

You also have the option to go through the list and individually turn off personalized ads for certain websites. These changes will take effect for "at least 90 days," Google says.

You can do the same thing for Facebook. We have a whole guide on the topic here.

Method 3: Enable "Do Not Track" on Your Browser

Do Not Track is a setting that lets your browser ask websites not to collect your data. Here's how you can enable it across a few popular browsers.

On Chrome: Open the browser > In the top right-hand corner, click the three vertical dots > Click Settings > Privacy and security > Cookies and other site data > Turn on the option for "Send a 'Do Not Track' request with your browsing traffic."

On Safari (Mac): Open the browser > Preferences > Privacy > Click on Prevent cross-site tracking.

On Safari (iOS): Settings > Scroll down and tap Safari > Under Privacy and Security turn on Prevent Cross-Site Tracking.

On Firefox: Open the browser > Click the hamburger menu in the upper right-hand corner > Preferences > Privacy & Security > Select Always under "Send websites a 'Do Not Track signal that you don't want to be tracked."

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