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Privacy plug-in showdown: Do Not Track Plus vs. Ghostery

do not track plus vs ghostery online privacy pluginsAt the beginning of June, Microsoft announced that it would enable ‘Do Not Track’ by default in its forthcoming Internet Explorer 10. The controversial decision immediately sparked vehement uproar among businesses that rely upon gathering as much data about Web users as possible, with online advertisers and advertising groups lending the majority of the outcry.

The reason is because Do Not Track, when enabled in a user’s Web browser, is intended to block websites, advertisers, and other companies from tracking that user’s online activities. However — and this is a big however — Do Not Track is a mostly-non-regulated standard, which means it doesn’t always work as users might expect. In other words, turning on Do Not Track does not necessarily mean you aren’t being tracked. Ad groups can choose whether to support DNT, or to block it. Yes, it’s a big problem, one that likely won’t be solved anytime soon, if ever.

For more about the problems with Do Not Track, see here.

To better protect yourself against advertisers, Facebook, and other online data collection companies hellbent on tracking your online whereabouts and activity, you’re going to need something a bit stronger — a browser plug-in.

A vast variety of plug-ins that provide Do Not Track-like capabilities exist. For today, we’re going to focus on two of the most popular: Do Not Track Plus and Ghostery.

Do Not Track Plus

The basics: Launched in February by online privacy company Abine, Do Not Track Plus (or DNT+) is available for both Mac and PC versions of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer. DNT+ promises to block more than 600 trackers around the Web.

Installing: Simply visit DoNotTrackPlus.com, which will automatically detect which browser you are using and offer up the relevant download option.

Usage: Once DNT+ is installed, you’ll see a notification button appear on your browser toolbar. When you visit a new webpage, the button will show you a number that indicates how many trackers were blocked on that particular page.

The number will appear in a bubble that is one of three colors: Green, yellow, or red. If the number appears in green, all detected trackers were blocked. If yellow, it means that all the tackers were blocked — but you may still be tracked. This notice shows up mostly on social networks like Facebook, as well as Google properties, which track your activities simply because you’re logged into the service. In other words: DNT+ is not going to stop Google from logging your browsing history, if you’re logged into your Google account. If a red bubble shows up, DNT+ detected a tracker, but was unable to block it.

See who’s tracking you: Once a page is loaded, you can click the DNT+ button to see a list of which types of companies were trying to track your activity on that page. Click the category, and you’ll see an itemized list of the companies. From there, you can choose to allow certain companies to track you on that specific page, during that visit.

You may also hide the DNT+ button altogether, if you prefer to not think about who’s trying to track you.

Abine has set DNT+ to block all detected trackers by default. If you want to allow specific companies to always track your activity, you can add them to your “whitelist” in the settings menu. (You can also add specific companies to your “blacklist” for more granular controls.)

Sarah Downey, Abine’s privacy analyst, tells me that one of the “unique” features about DNT+ is that while it blocks social networks like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest from tracking you through their social buttons, DNT+ will automatically rebuild the buttons, allowing you to still share links with your networks.

“We block those request by default. And then we rebuild the button with an identical placeholder that doesn’t include tracking,” says Downey. “If you want to share, you can still click the button. It’s your choice, not Facebook’s.”

In practice, however, I found that the rebuilding button feature doesn’t work that well. Facebook “Like” buttons show up consistently on both Firefox and Chrome (the two browsers I used for my tests). Google+ buttons also show, but not always, and the design that DNT+ uses is an old version of the “+1 Button.” Twitter and Pinterest buttons didn’t show up at all.

An interesting (read: terrifying) feature of DNT+ is that it keeps a running tally of how many trackers it has blocked since you installed the feature. Don’t be surprised if this number reaches into the thousands after just a few weeks of use.

One complaint that some users have about DNT+ is that it installs a number of cookies on your browser. While that’s a reasonable cause for alarm, Downey assures me that Abine does not track anything you do, not even when you download the software. Instead, those cookies are called “opt-out cookies” — they are what make DNT+ work.

Opt-out cookies “protect you from targeted advertising because when these cookies are in place, websites are unable to put their own trackers,” explains Abine in its DNT+ FAQs. “They signal to advertisers that you want to opt-out of receiving target advertising (it’s like the ‘Do Not Call’ list for targeted advertising).”

For what it’s worth, I did not notice any performance lag in either Firefox or Chrome after installing DNT+. In fact, pages seemed to load a bit faster than they did before.

Ghostery

The basics: Originally launched in 2009, Ghostery has developed somewhat of a cult following among the privacy-conscious crowd. As with DNT+, Ghostery is available for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer on both Mac and PC. Ghostery also supports Opera, and is available as a stand-alone app for iOS devices. Ghostery promises to block more than 1,000 trackers.

Installing: To find Ghostery for your browser of choice, visit Ghostery.com/download, and pick the applicable version from there. (Ghostery will detect your browser, and highlight that option in yellow when you visit the download page.)

Usage: Just as with DNT+, a Ghostery button will be automatically installed in your browser toolbar. (Hint: It looks like a ghost.) Ghostery will also launch an introduction page, which tells you about what Ghostery does. On the second page, you can choose to opt into GhostRank, which sends additional information back to Ghostery’s parent company, Evidon. There’s no need to turn on GhostRank if you don’t want to, but it can help the company improve the product in the long run.

When you visit a new webpage, Ghoster will show you the number of detected — but not blocked — trackers in a number bubble that appears above the Ghostery button in your toolbar.

Important: Unlike DNT+, Ghostery does not automatically block trackers. You can either block trackers individually, after they are detected, by clicking the Ghsotery button, then clicking on the name of the tracker, and choosing the “Block [TRACKER NAME]?” option. Or, you can block trackers in bulk by choosing the “option” under the Ghostery button, and clicking the boxes next to the various categories, like “advertisers,” “analytics,” etc.

In addition to the number bubble, a purple box showing you the names of the companies that tried to track you will pop up by default. Any companies you’ve chosen to block will appear crossed out. While informative, this box is rather annoying and obtrusive, so I chose to turn this off via the settings, which you can access though the Ghostery button.

Clicking the button also gives you options to pause blocking altogether. Blocking will stay paused until you choose to resume blocking You can also add certain trackers to your Ghostery “whitelist.” Once added, these will always be allowed to track your activity.

The blockage of social buttons is likely the most obvious evidence of Ghostery at work. (If you’ve chosen to block them, of course.) Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter share buttons don’t show up at all. Google’s “+1 Button” and LinkedIn’s button are replaced with a Ghostery button indicating that they’ve been blocked. If you like to share through these buttons, be sure to include them on your whitelist, or uncheck them on the options page. But remember: This will open you up to tracking by these companies.

Conclusion

Like Do Not Track itself, both of these plug-ins — and others like them — have their flaws. Blocking tracking can sometimes screw up the way webpages load unnecessarily. And if you have the tightest privacy settings turned on, you may miss the conveniences that things like social sharing buttons allow. Those are the primary downsides to using plug-ins like DNT+ and Ghostery.

When it comes down to blocking trackers — the point of these plug-ins — both seemed to perform equally. While Ghostery claims to block more than DNT+, I found that the number of trackers detected by each plug-in was generally about the same; sometimes Ghostery found more, sometimes DNT+ did. In all cases, the differences between the two were negligible.

Of the two, my personal preference is DNT+ for the simple reason that it blocks everything by default. Ghostery requires a bit more tinkering that I found a bit obnoxious. That said, many people swear by Ghostery. It just may be that they have more patience than I do.

Still, DNT+ is not without its faults. The social button replacement feature is a good idea, but still needs improvement. And the opt-out cookie installation, while not a problem for me, definitely puts some users off.

Regardless of which plug-in you choose, the result is the same: You get to control your data — not Facebook, Google, or anybody else.