Browser Synchronisations, Tracking Across External Sites, User Data Collection and Privacy Basics


Most popular browsers today allow you to synchronize across multiple devices. This enables you to view sites that you have visited and open tabs across your various devices like desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. This also enables you to do things like working with tabs seamlessly from your laptop to your tablet or finding a page that you were looking at on your smartphone, on your laptop.

By default, if you are signed in on Chrome, your history is available across devices. You can make this selective which will mean that the history of only those sites whose web address you keyed in, in your Search bar, is available across devices. You can also choose to clear your 'History' or browse without saving your 'History'. Similarly, if you don't want to sync 'Tabs' from one device to another, you can choose to turn this off.

Cookies are small text files created by sites that you may have visited. Cookies help sites to keep you signed in, store your preferences and remember them every time that you visit a particular site and help you browse local content. There are two types of cookies, viz., first and third party cookies. First party cookies are created by the website that you may be accessing and whose address is visible in the address bar. Third party cookies on the other hand, are created by other sites which typically may own some content, like ads or images, on the site that you may be visiting. You can clear all cookies over a defined period of time or from the beginning of time even. Doing so however will wipe out your sign-in information, your preferences and localized content. You can also choose to delete cookies only from certain sites, block certain sites from saving cookies and delete all cookies every time you exit a browser.

'Do not track' (DNT) is another way of preventing user's online behaviour across the internet from being tracked by behavioural advertisers, analytics companies and social media sites. It combines both technology by way of letting users signal whether they want to be tracked together with a policy framework defining how sites should respond to that signal. Most popular browsers like Chrome and Firefox allow you to turn the 'Do Not Track' option on or off.

Social media site Facebook serves up interest-based and contextual ads to you based on several sources of information that it collects. One of the sources happens to be content that an user may have shared with Facebook as well as Pages and statuses that the user may have visited and 'liked'. This happens within Facebook's digital walls. Further, Facebook collects data from its 'Like' buttons embedded on external sites. Thirdly, through cookies saved in your browser 'history' as well as data collected through all those embedded 'like' buttons, Facebook is able to direct accurately, interest-based and contextual ads at you, based on your browsing and search history.

There are several ways of preventing Facebook from having access to all this data. One of them is to use the Digital Advertising Alliance's opt-out tool, which can be accessed here. Once in, after it has compiled all the information, look at 'Companies Customizing Ads for your Browser', scroll through till you find Facebook and tick the checkmark on the right of this row. You can do this for any other sites that you find here which also prevents them from targeting you with 'interest based ads' based on your browsing habits information, collected in cookies. Once you are done, turn your Ad-blocker back on or install one ( e.g. Adblock Plus) if you didn't have one before. If you use Facebook on your smartphone or tablet, you need to turn this off here too. To do this on Android, go to Settings > Google > Ads and check off 'Opt out of Interest based Ads'. On iOS, go to General > Restrictions > Advertising and switch on 'Limit Ad Tracking'.

There is another way of achieving this quickly. Once you are logged on to Facebook, go to Settings > Ads and look at the 'Ads on apps and websites off of the Facebook Companies' and choose the 'No' option. There are several other options presented here which shouldn't be difficult to understand and you can choose your options for each of these options. However, if you are unsure and don't want any kind of interest-based ad at all, turn on the 'No' for all these other options. Check out the visual above for further details.

In an era of personalisation, semantic search and smart assistants, most operating environments collect a great deal of data about the user. The quality of a lot of apps and the personalized experience that spam filters and 'Search' for example delivers, is greatly dependent on this data.

Large reputed organisations like Google or Microsoft never ever sell this data to anyone externally and it exists under the best levels of protection and security that one can think of currently, on their servers. It is not viewed or accessed by humans either but by algorithms, apps and bots working on that data to deliver a seamless, enriched user experience which gets better as more and more user data becomes available. 

Companies like Google however give you complete visibility and a great deal of control over all that data collected. To experience this, sign in to Google and jump on to https://google.com/myactivity .

What you should now see is a reverse chronological list of your activity when logged into that Google account, which you can scroll down starting with 'Today' and working backwards. If you click on the three vertical dots at a Google service type entry (e.g. Search), you can choose to expand the detailed entries for that level for that date, or delete those entries. If you click on the dots on the 'Today' bar itself, you can choose to delete all of the activity entries for 'Today'The real power of the 'My Activity' interface comes into play when you click in the upper Search/Filter “by date & product” area. After you have done this, you can activate the search bar by clicking in the bar and typing something, or by unchecking “All products” further down. Be careful about what data you choose to delete however because the process is irreversible and may result in a significantly degraded user experience afterwards.

Given the 'connected state' most of us are in, almost always, across various devices which access the web and are forever accessing or storing data across huge banks of servers in the cloud, it is necessary to understand what is going on in the background and under the hood, as also the steps you can take to protect your privacy without compromising greatly on the quality of the user experience.

-- Raja Mitra