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How are corporations following our traces in 2021? Guidance on Facebook and Google anti-tracking measures

Published: July 25, 2021 By Ozair Malik

A spy with dog following the digital trails on social platforms

Since the advent of the internet, we used to fear bad actors that could steal our private data or misuse our identity. But, we paid no heed to corporations like Facebook, Google, Microsoft are spying on us since day one.

Alas, these Internet giants are modern-day online spies.

As of July 2021, an average person spends 145 minutes (2 hours 25 minutes) daily on social media. From these 145 minutes, the majority of the share goes to Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp.

Around four petabytes of data are generated by Facebook alone in a day. We all know that these corporations track and log our activities on their platforms. Still, the astonishing fact is that they follow us all over the web also.

Below, I will discuss the espionage or tracking methods of these corporations. Alongside, I will recommend some of the best anti-tracking measures.

 

Disclaimer:

You just need to be aware that you will probably render many of your apps less usable — or in some cases, completely unusable.

When we talk about Internet giants, we cannot single out a corporation because they all track us at the same level.

Let’s start with Google first.


How is Google tracing me in 2021?

Google, the most queried search engine globally, tracks every click we make on the web. It owns about 70 products, including the Android OS, each of which collects information about you.

You might have heard the famous saying: “If it is free, you are the product”. Hence, you use Gmail, Google, Drive, YouTube, Google Maps, etc., for free in exchange for your personal data. This is no hidden truth that our data is sold to advertisers, who are their main financers.

What does Google track about me?

It tracks almost everything you do online or offline– web searches, YouTube browsing history, videos watched, etc. In addition to this, it sketches your map of every location you visit with signed-in devices, which they claim to use for improving “map searches”.

If you are an Android user, you are also being tracked 24/7 because Google has access to your contacts, camera, microphone, and other third-party apps. It also monitors any interaction with the system: travel, web searches, locations, phone numbers, and even record voice.

Here is the minimal list of many of the things Google tracks about you, whether offline or online:

  • What you search on the web
  • How do you query every time
  • Your search patterns
  • The things you are interested in
  • Images and Videos you watch
  • Your IP and Mac address
  • Data of device used to access Google.
  • Browser cookies are stored in the system.
  • Location of Signed-in devices
  • Third-Party tracking of linked services

The privacy policy of Google mentions the detail about what information the company collects. Amazingly, every time we agree to the privacy policy without even reading because they have captured our lives to the extent that we are bound to do this. But, I will recommend to all those privacy-conscious individuals to at least skim the document before proceeding.

Again, we all know that all the collected data is sold to the highest bidders. It is also used for targeted ads, relevant search results, and recommendations. Ironically, your data's access is also given to the website owner who uses Google Analytics.

Google web account interface showing the Ads personalization feature

How to stop Google from tracking me?

As told above, your data is gold for these internet giants, and we provide them with this gold for free. Like every other asset, you need to protect the privacy and implement different methods to limit the use of data.

The only one-stop solution to this problem is to simply stop using Google and its allied services. But, this is not possible considering that now our lives are greatly dependent on them.

However, there are some other solutions through which you can minimize the access of data, which include:

Alternative Search Engines

Although Google is the most popular search engine, alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo, Bing, Dogpile Search, etc., do not track your search history.

If you cannot abandon the Google search engine, you can avoid tracking by not signing in. However, it will drastically degrade your search result's relevancy. So, there is always a trade-off.

If you are privacy conscious, I recommend using such alternative search engines for querying over the web.

Switching to other Secure Email Services

Gmail is not the only free mail service available. But, it is widely used due to its Parent Google's hype. Many other free and secure yet unpopular services are available, including ProtonMail, CounterMail, Hushmail, etc.

The abovementioned mail services use encryption of different types for the protection of private messages. Therefore, I recommend using such an alternative free but secure mail service provider.

How to stop Gmail from tracking your Emails?

Gmail does track your Emails, and the company claims that they use the data for a smoother user experience.  If you do not wish to contribute to this great cause, you can revoke your data access.

To stop Gmail from keeping eyes on your private Emails:

  1. Turn off the Smart Reply Feature. This feature provides users with suggestions for quick replies and suggests it needs to scan the whole message.
    1. Go to Settings of Gmail Account.
    2. Select see all settings.
    3. Toggle off the Smart Reply option.
  2. Turn off the Smart Compose Feature. It makes a suggestion based on your writing style.
    1. Repeat the above steps (a) & (b).
    2. Move to the section smart compose personalization.
    3. Turn off the option.

Check your Google Account Settings

As a user, you can minimize or revoke the access of your data to Google. You can implement this access control on all Google-owned services.

To revoke the access and check privacy settings of the account:

  1. Go to Google Account Settings.
  2. Move to Data & Personalization Section.
  3. Click on manage your activity controls.
  4. Toggle off Web & App Activity, Location History & YouTube History.
  5. Move to the bottom of the page and click on “Go to Ad Settings”.
  6. Toggle off the Ad personalization.

By implementing the steps mentioned above, you have successfully limited the data access. But, remember there would be a trade-off between smooth user experience and privacy because you will not receive targeted Ads recommendations. Moreover, search results will also not be much relevant.

Google account web interface showing account settings page


How is Facebook tracing me in 2021?

Facebook, the most popular social networking platform, has 2.7 billion daily users. It uses different tactics to keep these billion users glued to the site or App. The higher the average use time, the higher amount of data it can collect on them.

All enlightened users know that this collected data is sold to advertisers who are a significant source of income for Facebook.

The recent scandals of Facebook and the most famous Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed its user trust betrayal.

In November 2020, the South Korean Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC) fined Facebook $6.1 million for disclosing information about its users to other companies. The investigations revealed that Facebook leaked the personal information of about 3.3 million South Korean users.

Tadviser.ru

I have mentioned the above data leak scandal to solder that Facebook logs and sells our data to the highest bidders.

Facebook is like a lot of other ad companies that try to collect a lot of data about what you do online,” says Justin Brookman, privacy and technology director for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports. “What makes Facebook special is how wide its net is and how much it knows about you. Unfortunately, there are very few rules around how it tracks you.”   

                                                                                                        Consumerreports.org

Below, I will discuss what does Facebook knows about you? And how to save your data? If you are privacy-conscious.

What does Facebook track about me?

Likewise, Google, Facebook, and its sister companies track you on the platforms and track you across the web. It also tracks you on many other websites that are not directly connected to the platform.

It also knows what 2.7 billion daily users are doing on their phones, even If they aren’t using the App. However, IOS users don’t need to worry much because the latest IOS 14.5 version has included anti-tracking features, allowing users to limit their data access to Apps.

Facebook wants as much information as it can get,” says Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of data security firm Disconnect. “Most people don’t understand that Facebook is tracking you when you’re not on the platform.

                                                                                                                                            Consumerreports.org

While you are on Facebook App or any other site, you encounter Like or Share buttons. If those buttons are on the page, whether you touch them or not, Facebook is collecting your data.

Alongside, you might have heard about the Pixel and SDK. These tools, along with buttons, are integrated on third-party sites. This integration opens the door for third-party tracking

With the help of these tools, Facebook and third-party sites track:

  • What content do you watch
  • What apps you use and your usage patterns
  • What do you shop online
  • What brands or products you are interested in
  • Your interaction with friends on posts
  • What sites do you visit
  • Information about the device used to perform an activity
  • Logs your location 24/7
  • IP and Mac Address

Additionally, Facebook and WhatsApp also eavesdrop on you via your device's microphone.

Kelly Branson, a professor at the University of South Florida, examined how the internet giant listens to the users through an investigation. She stated this based on the activity of her microphone while she was using Facebook.

Branson talked several times about the topics she had never searched on the web to establish a proof of concept. In the meantime, she immediately started receiving recommendations and Ads about the things she discussed in the proximity of her smartphone.

Five steps to stop Facebook from tracking a user over the web

Feel free to share the code of infographics

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How to Stop Facebook from tracking me?

After scandals surfaced, Facebook updated its privacy policy and introduced some new features that included Off-Facebook Activity and Privacy Checkup Tool. These features provide a user with the control to revoke or limit the data access.

By far, the easiest yet dependable solution is to limit the use of Facebook. Moreover, decrease the amount of information you share about yourself or your family over the platform. I would recommend not to post personal and family pictures or any personally identifiable information.

Let’s have a look at other solutions to minimize data access.

Clear history using Off-Facebook Activity

The Off-Facebook Activity features allow you to clear the history of apps and websites that have collected your data. You can also view the list of apps and websites that track you to target ads.

To delete the already stored data using the Off-Facebook Activity feature:

  1. From your phone, go to Settings & Privacy.
  2. Move to the Privacy Shortcuts section.
  3. Scroll down until you see the section Your Facebook Information.
  4. Tap on view or clear your off-Facebook activity.
  5. Tap on Clear History.

If you want to stop any future collection of data, then turn off the option:

  1. Repeat the above steps till (4).
  2. Tap on More Options.
  3. Select Manage Future Activity.
  4. Again, Tap on the Manage Future Activity option below.
  5. Toggle off the option Future Off-Facebook Activity.

Check your Device Location permissions

By restricting the device permissions, you will minimize location tracking. However, this solution doesn’t guarantee complete protection because Facebook has admitted that it uses your network connection to approximate your whereabouts.

The latest iOS 14.5 has a new feature called App Tracking Transparency which gives iOS users the option to choose to allow the apps to track them. But, in older versions, we had to do it manually.

  1. Go to iPhone Settings.
  2. Move to Privacy Section.
  3. Then, move to the Location Services section.
  4. Select the Facebook App.
  5. Tap on “While using the App” or “Never”.

If you are an Android user, then you can revoke the location permissions by the following method:

  1. Go to device settings.
  2. Move to the Location section.
  3. Tap on App Access to Location.
  4. Select Facebook App.
  5. Choose between “Allow only while using the app” or “Deny”.

If you are a privacy-conscious mobile phone user, I recommend implementing the above methods to hide your whereabouts.

Screenshots of Facebook App, showing steps to clear history


Conclusion

While you are on the web, you leave digital trails that primarily include your personally identifiable information (PII). It is imperative to protect your privacy; otherwise, you will regret it.

I understand that you cannot abandon the use of these services. But, you can at least get aware of the privacy issues over the web and take necessary actions to safeguard your data.

The anti-tracking measures mentioned above are personally researched and applied by me. If you find any other measures, please comment below.

Author
Ozair Malik
A passionate Cyber Security researcher and writer with a keen interest in Digital Forensics. A community worker running a insta blog to raise cybersecurity awareness among laymen.

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