When you turn on a computer, hundreds of things all start running in the background, immediately vying for your computer’s attention and processing power, all trying to accomplish their various tasks. Maybe all you see on the screen is a pretty background picture, but, behind the scenes, billions of bits of information are violently churning away at a submolecular level.
When you connect one of these amazing devices to the Internet, hundreds of things start happening there, as well, all in the background, all hidden from view. Many of these things are benign, necessary things required to be in place just to make an Internet connection happen. Sadly, many of these things are not benign or harmless. Instead, they are rude, intrusive, demanding, invasive and, in some cases, dangerous.
In the “old days” of the Internet, say, in the 1990s, when you visited a website, that’s pretty much all that happened: you visited that website. You typed the website’s address, complete with the “http://www” in your browser’s address bar, hit the Enter key and you were shown content from that website. In fact, everything you saw came from that website; every picture, every image, every line of text, every button you clicked and every story you read originated from that website, and that website alone. Everything related to that website was stored on that site’s servers (big computers storing and “serving” information) and everything you saw came directly from that site and nowhere else.
That is rarely the case today. Many websites, especially news and entertainment websites, are stuffed with content that actually comes from somewhere else. The second you connect to most medium and large websites, a giant behind-the-scenes machine kicks into gear. Aware of the presence of a new “customer” (you), the website goes to work connecting you to scores of other Internet entities, alerting them to your presence and enabling hidden connections designed to scour every last bit of information possible about you.
Websites also embed tiny images and invisible code in the pages which turn on multiple “trackers” that start spying on you. Every click you make and every page you view is recorded and sent to dozens of tracking firms for analysis and exploitation. Websites also dump dozens, sometimes hundreds of “cookies” in your computer, tiny files designed to tag and identify you, and track your activities across the Internet.
Much of this invisible activity is essentially harmless, designed purely for marketing purposes as a way to turn you into a “paying” customer. Some of it, unfortunately, is instigated by Internet crime cartels, who purchase tracking and cookie-dumping space on major, legitimate websites using “front” companies. The Bad Guys also have a vested interest in tracking you across the Internet and hopefully tricking you into doing the wrong thing.
Government spy agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and China’s Third Department of the People’s Liberation Army (3PLA) are also in on the fun, with jillions web trackers and cookie-dumpers scattered all across the Internet.
I’ve been experimenting with some tools recently that allow ordinary folks like you and me to see behind the scenes and witness what our computers are actually doing when we connect to a website. Most of the good tools work using the Firefox browser. If you do not have Firefox, go to mozilla.com and get it. Then, go to ghostery.com and click on the purple Ghostery Add-on Install It Now button. Read the brief tutorial, and prepare to be shocked as you visit website after website, viewing the mountains of junk that websites dump into your computer, and the scores of trackers that are, and always have been, spying on you.
As an example, go to time.com, the home of Time Magazine. My Ghostery setup shows no less than 174 Web trackers spying on me, including oddball outfits with names like OpenX, Yahoo Ad Exchange, Dotomi, and Outbrain.
Other websites are almost as crazy, with the New York Daily News racking up 100 trackers. Newsweek showed only 26, CBS News was 104, and Walmart launched 40 trackers, but the University of Oklahoma showed only eight.
Happily, Ghostery has options that make it easy to block website trackers and cookies. These options can have at least two benefits: speeding up the loading of websites, and enhancing ones privacy on the Internet. Those seem like good things to me.