Electronic Frontier Foundation: The Privacy Badger
Chrome & Firefox
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Internet users could tell the websites they visit that they don’t want to be tracked by advertising groups unrelated to the webpage they’re viewing? In fact, since 2009, a number of small startups have had such programs ready to go, but such information was difficult to access because many of the biggest advertising companies on the Internet are fighting tooth and nail against easy public access. That is until the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group formed by techies “defending civil rights in the digital world,” released Privacy Badger, which lets users opt out of tracking across the Internet.
An extension for Firefox and Chrome, Privacy Badger disallows cookies from certain third-party domains. Privacy Badger has an interface that’s very user-friendly, and clearly lists all third-party requests, whether they’re blocked or not. When someone clicks on a site, they request information from domains that aren’t necessarily the site they asked to visit. That is how hypertext – the “HT” in “HTTP” – works. A good example: locate a blog with an embedded Facebook-type button. That particular widget makes it simple for you to ‘like’ that page. Simultaneously, however, it’s also tracking your activity across the Internet. This is called a “third-party request,” and is what Privacy Badger aims to block. Previously, blockers have used a centralized blacklist approach. Blockers downloaded a list of bad domains and proceeded accordingly. Instead, Privacy Badger blocks objectionable behaviors. As you browse, if it detects the same third-party domain tracking you across three different sites, it blocks it!
There are, along with Privacy Badger, several other companies actively developing privacy tools for web browsers. These companies are classified as ad blockers, but this is more of a marketing distinction than anything. Privacy Blocker is free while its rivals charge for their services. In the end, the user cares about the tangible benefit – they don’t have to look at annoying ads on the web – as opposed to nebulous rhetoric about privacy protection.
Different ad blockers are widely downloaded, sometimes for a fee. Companies like Disconnect, Adblock Pro, Adblock, HTTP Switchboard and Ghostery are for profit and aim to make money. Ghostery makes money by tracking the trackers while blocking them and then sells that data to third party trackers. Disconnect takes a more laissez-faire pay-what-you-can approach, but it is still developed by a for-profit company founded by a posse of former Google engineers. Adblock is not to be confused with AdblockPlus. The former is donation-supported, but many users confuse it with the latter, for which advertisers pay beaucoup bucks to land on a whitelist. Adblock and AdblockPlus allow users to upload their own blacklists and whitelists, but Ghostery and Disconnect will not allow users to add new filters. Too confusing? Get Privacy Badger.
To cut a long story short, the difference between Privacy Badger and the other extensions is that their blacklist is generated through what is called heuristic blocking, which essentially means it’s not an enemy list of companies who won’t play ball. The more it gets used, the more information it gleans, and thus the better is gets. Fresh out of the box, Privacy Badger won’t block nearly as many third-party requests as the commercial options, but as you use it more, it will learn more and more hosts to block, although it does come with a built-in whitelist for things like Google Maps and Paypal, which are needed to browse the web normally. This approach is a major user-friendly and positive change.