Nova Scotia

How to keep your online history private as tracking technology improves

CBC Information Morning tech columnist Nur Zincir-Heywood tells you how to protect yourself from cookies — and about the new threat of favicons.

There are ways to protect yourself from cookies, but so-called 'favicons' are a new threat

Professor Nur Zincir-Heywood says you should avoid accepting website cookies — but there are ways to get around them if you do. (Submitted by Dalhousie University)

If you use the internet in any capacity, you've likely experienced this: after visiting one website, you may go to another website and find that it's showing you ads for the first one. Or ads for a website you've visited in the past.

This is all because these websites are collecting your personal information to target you with ads, according to CBC's Information Morning tech columnist Nur Zincir-Heywood, a professor in the computer science department at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Basically, the website tries to personalize our experience, so they collect information about us, and they store this information in a database at the website," she said.

"Then, to be able to find us in that database, they leave our identifiers on our computers, on our smartphone."

Those identifiers are called "cookies" — and they don't come with chocolate chips.

"They're small in size, but they do a great job in terms of profiling us," said Zincir-Heywood. "Think of them as cookie crumbs. They follow us."

Cookies can be used to collect your information and target ads toward you. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

But it doesn't stop there. Those websites may also have agreements with other companies that allow those third-party companies to leave their cookies on your computers and smartphones, too.

You might have seen messages popping up in your browser from time to time, asking you to manage your cookies, or accept cookies.

"They're asking ... 'Do you want to be profiled?' Think of it that way," said Zincir-Heywood. "And I would like to hope that you say no."

Cookies can be potentially be hijacked by hackers, who may be able to take control of people's accounts and steal personal data.

Zincir-Heywood said you can opt out of cookies by going to the privacy tab under the preferences menu of your browser, though some websites might not give you access without cookie permission.

If that happens, Zincir-Heywood said you can still accept the cookies and browse the website, but to make sure to delete your history and clear those cookies by using your preferences menu.

Browsing the web in incognito mode can also help bypass cookies, she said.

The new threat of favicons

While those measures may help with cookies, Zincir-Heywood says there's a new threat to internet privacy: favicons.

Favicons are the little icons you see in the corner of the tab while browsing a website. While those icons may appear harmless, Zincir-Heywood said researchers recently found they can be used as a way to follow someone's internet activity.

"This image can be piggybacked with information that can identify us. And just like a cookie, they can then be used to match us in a database," she said.

But unlike a cookie, there's no way to opt out of it because they are managed by your browser.

Favicons are the little icons associated with a website that appear in your tabs. (CBC)

After this discovery, Zincir-Heywood said some browser companies acted on it, such as Brave, a privacy-enabled browser. 

In a Wednesday blog post, Google's director of product management, ads privacy and trust, David Temkin, said the company continues "to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers.

"Today, we're making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products."

While ad-blockers can be used to block targeted advertisements, Zincir-Heywood said they won't prevent your information from being collected.

"Hopefully now that we know about [favicons], some entrepreneurial [person] will come up with a way to block them, too," she said.

"But until then, keep a watch on it."