When Yahoo! announced last week that it will no longer comply with Do Not Track signals from web browsers, it struck a major blow to privacy rights on the internet. While Yahoo! claims that the decision was made because of the lack of standardization of tracking protection, it does seems that this may be part of a larger trend. Last fall, the Digital Advertising Alliance pulled out of the WWWC’s tracking protection project. Over a year ago, Google acknowledged that most of its web services don’t modify their behavior when they receive a Do Not Track request.
Enter Privacy Badger
Privacy Badger, released in alpha last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), appears on the scene at a timely moment. The online rights organization has built a browser add-on to fight back when Do Not Track requests aren’t honored. This tool detects spying advertisements which we cross paths with all over the web, and the unseen trackers which feed our personal data to them.
How It Works
Many web pages we visit contain content which originates from a number of sources. Some content (like newsfeeds) can be useful or even an integral component of our favorite sites. But some, particularly in the realm of advertising, is designed to collect information on our browsing habits, to be used for nefarious purposes.
Privacy Badger sniffs out all the third-party sites in the pages you visit. This includes ads, scripts, and images, as well as those tiny almost-invisible images that trackers love to use. As you continue to surf the web, the Badger takes note of the cookies which track where you’re going and what you’re doing. When it sees that a sites is watching you, it simply blocks the content from that site.
Where It Gets A Little Complicated
Not all third party content is malicious. Some of it provides valuable data to the pages we love to visit. But it’s more complicated, because tracking has become increasingly interwoven with important content. When Privacy Badger recognizes this, it allows connections to those third party sites, but selectively blocks the tracking elements. While it doesn’t blacklist sources, it does maintain a whitelist of sites which have been seen to deliver valuable third party resources. It also allows the user to choose to either whitelist certain sources or block their content completely.
Not An Ad Blocker
Though many of us have grown accustomed to ad-blocking as the primary method of avoiding tracking, Privacy Badger is first and foremost a privacy tool. Its function is to recognize the sites that continue tracking you after your browser has sent the Do Not Track request. While most of the content used to track you comes from ads, there are plenty of ads which don’t carry the privacy-invading elements, and these aren’t blocked.
How To Use It
Privacy Badger is currently in an alpha release, and the good folks at the EFF are asking us all to help them testing it. It can currently be installed as an add-on to Chrome or Firefox. They’re working towards future releases for Opera and Firefox Mobile, but aren’t too optimistic about builds for Internet Explorer or Safari, which don’t appear technically compatible with Privacy Badger.
Once you have the tool installed, you can click on the Badger icon which will appear on any webpage you visit. A list of all third party sites involved in that page will pop-up, with a set of colored sliders. A green slider indicates a third party site which hasn’t been seen to track you (at least not yet) and might be acceptable. But this can change as you traverse the web. When the third party has been seen to be tracking you across sites, the color changes: yellow indicates that the tracking site is on its whitelist and is therefore allowed, while red shows a source that is fully blocked. You can also override these setting by manually adjusting the sliders.
If, like most people, you’re concerned about privacy on the web, this should prove to be a valuable tool. As its documentation tells us, “Nothing can stop the Privacy Badger from eating cookies when it’s hungry”. You can download the Badger from its website. If you find bugs, you can report them here for Chrome, and here for Firefox, and help strengthen the Badger.