I’d never confuse Amazon, Facebook or doubleClick with the NSA, but I still don’t like being tracked online. Tracking is more than just annoying; it lets unscrupulous companies that scarf up user data turn around and sell your information — and despite statements to the contrary, the collection isn’t always done anonymously.
A number of browser add-ons and apps that block some forms of tracking are available, but a new option, launched this week by the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), appears more sophisticated and easier to use. It’s called Privacy Badger and runs as an add-on to Firefox and Chrome. You can download it here.
It may seem odd for an advocacy group to launch a browser add-on, even a free one, but this isn't the foundation's first product. Several years ago EFF announced HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension that encrypts your communications with many major websites. EFF has a seven-person technical staff that develops software using open source technology, according to Peter Eckersley, the foundation’s technical project director.
Privacy Badger installs in seconds and places a small icon in your browser’s toolbar. When you go to a website that uses tracking technology a number representing the number of trackers on that site appears just under the little Badger icon. Privacy Badger blocks them, but you can also drill down and decide to allow specific trackers. Once installed, you can click the icon in your toolbar at any time to see the things Privacy Badger allows (green) and blocks (red). You can also see the things on the app's own whitelist that are necessary for the site to work — but have still been blocked from tracking you (yellow).
A word about what’s going on under the hood. Most websites are conglomerations of multiple sites. There’s the main site, say CIO.com, plus a bunch of smaller ones that serve ads and images and other widgets. Privacy Badger actually blocks those sites from loading and thus keeps them from tracking you. Privacy Badger is an ad blocker as well as a tracking blocker, so it serves a dual purpose.
Unlike most other trackers, Privacy Badger doesn’t work by maintaining lists of known tracking sites, Eckersley said. Instead, it uses algorithms that analyze the code on websites to decide what’s a tracker and what’s not. This lets Privacy Badger deal with complex situations in which a tracker serves a useful function in addition to tracking. Google Maps, for example, tracks you, but it also serves maps. Privacy Badger is sophisticated enough to block tracking while still letting maps appear, according to Eckersley.
Privacy Badger was just released, and I’ve only used it for a short while. So far I’ve had no problems, and it seems to work well. However, the Chrome version feels more complete than the Firefox version. For example, the Badger icon in Firefox doesn’t show the number of tracking sites, but the Chrome version does. Also, the Chrome version identified more trackers on specific sites than the Firefox version.
Technically, Privacy Badger is still in beta, but it’s stable and the EFF encourages everyone to download it. I expect the rough edges to be smoothed out quickly, and I don’t see any reason not to use it. After all, there's little upside to being tracked.