When it comes to browsing the Web without leaving a trail, there is a lot of noise out there. Advice varies from getting a VPN, to disabling cookies, to utilizing the Private Browsing mode within the browser of your choice. But which of these tools actually work? And how do they work? The truth is, different tools prevent different kinds of tracking.
- Your IP address is a series of numbers generally set by your ISP, and is necessary to access the Internet. Any site you visit can log your IP address, which could later be used to identify you.
- Accounts you’re signed into, such as Google or Facebook, can be used by those companies to track your activity on those respective sites, along with other sites thanks to an embedded code. Things like Google Analytics or the ubiquitous “Like” button could, in theory, track your browsing activities on behalf of those companies.
- Cookies are small text files generated by sites to save, among other things, your preferences on sites. The Web would be very annoying to use without them, but cookies are also sometimes used to track users for advertising purposes.
- Your online fingerprint, or user agent string, is made up of all the information your computer sends out to Web servers while requesting a website. This includes what browser and operating system you’re using, as well as your resolution. This site lets you see what this information looks like. Your fingerprint isn’t necessarily unique, but can be used to track you even when everything else is obscured.
There are other methods, but these are the main tracking tools as of this writing. Knowing which privacy tools to use depends on which of these things you’re concerned about. Let’s go through all the different tools you can use to browse the Web privately, and go over what they do and don’t do to protect your privacy.