These days it seems like everyone online is trying to track you. The big names like Facebook and Google grab all the attention, but the reality is that almost every company online is interested in where you have been and where you are going. This tracking can interfere with online research where results are “personalized” or where services block you if too much activity comes from your computer’s IP address.
The most common way to track users is with cookies. Cookies are small files stored within your browser that can store things like your account information so that you don’t have to keep logging in to your account. However, websites do much more than just what helps YOU with your cookies. Deleting your cookies helps to protect your privacy.
Unfortunately, there are some websites you would rather keep the cookies on your computer. For example, most banking sites require you to answer an additional security question whenever your logon from an unregistered computer. By answering the question and then registering the computer as one of the ones that you authorize for access, you can keep from having to answer the extra question each time you login. However, that registration is stored as a cookie on your computer, so if you delete all of your cookies, then you delete your registration as well. It’s also a pain to remember to constantly delete your cookies.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution for Google Chrome users. The Vanilla Cookie Manager extension for Chrome allows you to set up a whitelist of protected cookies. Everything else is deleted when you start (or shutdown, depending upon how you configure it) Chrome. That way, you can log into Facebook, for example, and stay logged in as long as Chrome is open. Once you close Chrome, your Facebook cookie is hammered and won’t come back until you log in again. That means, no more Facebook Open Graph following you around as you read your news, update your blogs, or whatever. With your bank registration cookies, you can mark them as whitelisted and they will not get deleted.
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It’s the best of both worlds. Your tracking cookies get deleted regularly (rendering them useless) automatically, but the cookies you actually want to keep are kept safe and sound.
Deleting Tracking Cookies is Not Enough
As it turns out, some companies just don’t want to take no for an answer. Even if you delete your cookies, they will still track you and log information about you based on your IP address. Then, they will match up your cookies and IP address and still get a pretty good picture of what you are doing whether your delete your cookies or not.
To get around this, you can take advantage of a wrinkle in the way most internet service providers work. Back in the day, getting a fixed IP address was a big deal. You can’t host your own website without one, for example, and there were only so many addresses available. These days, most ISPs use IPv6, which has plenty of available addresses, but it still is a pain to manage fixed addresses. Besides, they have gotten used to charging extra for a fixed IP.
That means that most internet service that is either DSL or cable internet does not have a fixed IP address. Instead, IP addresses are assigned dynamically. You can use this to your advantage by disconnecting your connection and getting a new IP address. However, most dynamic addressing keeps the address assigned to you for a period of time after you disconnect. It keeps things smooth in case your connection just drops for a few seconds or minutes. That means you need a long enough disconnect so that your ISP releases your IP address, assigns it to someone else, and then has to assign you a new one. This can take a few hours depending upon your service.
With my Comcast cable internet, it takes at least two hours to be sure I get a new IP address. Unfortunately, I use the internet extensively for my freelance writing business and I don’t want to try and use the connection only to remember that I had disconnected it earlier, go and reconnect it, and then wait to get online. Instead, I stole my outlet timer from the Christmas tree. Now, each night between 3:00 am (sometimes I work late) and 6:00 am (sometimes I work early) the power gets cut to my cable modem. That three hours of disconnection usually results in a new IP address each morning.
First thing each morning I use the tools that get bogged down if there is too much activity from one IP address, like when Google starts showing you a captcha for everything you do. With a clean, new IP address, and no cookies still stored, all of those interactions take place with whatever counters are out there set to zero, and I don’t have to worry about getting tainted results that are “personalized” for me.
What tips do you use to keep your online activities private and untracked?