Ask LH: Is My Web Browser Tracking Me?

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Hi Lifehacker. When I was looking for browsers I discounted a lot because I didn't know who made them and what information they collected and how trustworthy they are. Could a dodgy company be selling information I entered into my browser, or my browsing history? Should I reconsider Opera? How do all these companies making browsers make money? Thanks, Eye-Browser-Raiser.

Hey EBR,

Let’s answer your last question first and try and put your mind at ease.

Companies making browsers make money in a couple of different ways. There isn’t a direct way to make money from building a browser, but companies such as Mozilla, which created Firefox back in 2004, can earn cash by using a particular default search engine. For instance, Mozilla used to partner with Google – so whenever you searched on Mozilla’s browser, that would be a Google search. Google then funnelled money back to Mozilla as royalties for using their search engine as the default.

Now, Firefox is in partnership with Yahoo, which did a deal to become the default search engine for the browser back in 2015. Browsers aren’t designed necessarily to make money – but deals like this help. Of course, Google don’t get these kind of royalties in Chrome, but by using their browser you are exposed to other Google products, like their email services and cloud storage.

Opera doesn’t have great penetration in the browser market – you would notice that most people are using Chrome, Firefox or their operating systems default browsers and their purchase by the Chinese company Qihoo in 2016 raised a few eyebrows itself because of that company’s troubled history. Yet it is a relatively stable, fast browser that is more than capable for daily browsing of the web. Interestingly, Opera launched Opera Neon earlier this year, which aims to redefine the way that people browse the internet. It’s a real weird browser that you might enjoy trying out if you are yet to find one that really suits your needs.

But you’re most worried about trustworthiness! So - what is your browser tracking?

First, understand that a browser is just a piece of software that is designed to bring a resource (webpage) to you. You type a website’s address into the browser and it generates the web page for you to see.

When you visit websites, the software is keeping a log of the things that you do in its history and also small packet of data known as a cookie. Cookies can exist for different periods of time - some are erased when you close your browser, whereas others linger, which means webpages you’ve previously accessed can ‘remember’ you and the things you were doing. For instance, if you’re using a shopping website, you may have filled your cart with products but never purchased them. When you return, you may find they are still in the cart.

Browsers also store information into a 'cache', a repository for temporary files, like web pages and media you encounter online. The chief purpose is to speed up the load time. These files are stored locally, on your computer. A website can access this information via your browser. If you want to know the amount of information that a website can 'see', this website gives you a good idea.

If you’re concerned about the ability for your browser sessions to be tracked on the internet, you should check out this piece from a few years back which details a few ways you can stop being tracked on the web in browsers such as Chrome and Firefox.

Lastly, information you’ve entered into your browser is actually information you’ve entered into various webpages and servers around the world and the browser is just a mechanism for you to perform that (oft-unwanted transaction). The data itself is funnelled through your internet connection and a unique address that identifies that connection – your IP address. Ultimately, your internet service provider (ISP) can see this address and, in theory, the websites that particular address connects to. Thus, they are in control of your browsing history.

If you want to mask things like your browsing history, then it is worth looking into a VPN, which essentially hides your IP address. You can read all about VPNs below and see if they are right for you.

Good luck!

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