4: Reduce personal data collected and web tracking; choose and use browsers wisely

Updated: May 31

We recommend browsers that proactively and by default both block tracking cookies and do not collect browsing history. Google Chrome, the most widely used browser, at present defaults to enabling web trackers and there is an enormous amount of personal data collected, something to which you technically agreed, perhaps unconsciously, when you originally clicked on “I Agree” to its Terms of Use. So we espouse strongly considering a more privacy-sensitive alternative. However, if you stick with Chrome, then consider turning off certain tracking and data collection settings. This will help reduce personal data collected.


By default, Google Chrome and Search track your web browse and search activities


Google has a set of widely-used and tremendously useful tools that are offered at no charge to users, from Google Chrome, Google Search, Maps to Gmail and more. By default, Chrome allows “tracking cookies” (see a previous post Block web trackers and ad serving), and its default settings allow it to collect data regarding user browsing/searching. The personal data collected on your web activities, in turn, enables personalization of Google’s own tools results (e.g., search result) plus third-parties’ targeted ads. Such personalization is viewed by some as beneficial, arguing that it is better to get targeted ads in areas of demonstrated interest, than to get random ads that may be irrelevant. However, we would suggest you reconsider the privacy ramifications of Google and third-party web sites knowing so much of your online activities – from which sites you visit, ads you click, videos you watch, items you purchase -- and associating them with your digital profile that over time reflects your interests, preferences, hobbies, economic status, and even political views.


By default, Chrome allows tracking cookies and web activity data collection, but it also lets you turn off settings that limit those (discussed further below). The reasons we espouse considering an alternative browser to Chrome notwithstanding the controls Google offers to turn off tracking are several-fold:

  • The options to turn off the web activity tracking and cookie management may be beyond the skill set of some end-users, whereas some other browsers do not collect activity data, block tracking cookies, and/or block ads by default, that is, without the user needing to do anything.

  • The business model of other browsers, such as Mozilla’s Firefox, Apples’ Safari, or niche offerings Brave or Opera, embrace sensitivity to privacy issues as a goal.

  • Philosophically, we see Google’s ad revenue and data collection that enables targeted ads as potentially conflicted with the privacy interests of users. Plenty has been written about Google’s personal data collection and default allowance of tracking cookies, such as, for example, Lifewire’s What Does Google Know About Me? and Washington Post’s, Goodbye, Chrome: Google’s Web browser has become spy software.

  • If you try other browsers, you may find that some work as fast or faster than Chrome and/or consume fewer machine resources.

Reduce personal data collected: two strategies


We recommend that you consider one of two actions if privacy is of primary importance:

  1. Use another web browser that embraces user privacy as paramount, or

  2. If you are an avid user of Google Chrome (or a Chrome user by company policy) and do not want to change browsers, consider disabling certain collection and tracking settings that Google provides.

Let’s look at those two options in greater detail:


1. Use another web browser that views privacy as paramount


For the reasons outlined above, we suggest you consider one of the many viable browser alternatives to Google Chrome, where their business model and culture respect user privacy. For example,

  • Firefox - from the non-profit Mozilla.org, promising “enhanced privacy protection” by default

  • Safari – Apple’s popular browser, promising “intelligent tracking prevention”

  • Brave or Opera, niche players with a multi-platform, privacy-focused browsers with ad blocking and tracker blocking technologies built in

Alternative browsers to Google Chrome are reviewed in detail on various sites, such as the following:

I’ve chosen to use the non-profit Mozilla’s Firefox who has credibility in their stated position of not tracking your web browsing and by default, they have a tracker blocking feature that blocks many third-party tracker cookies. Firefox has also undergone significant improvements in recent years, whereby we see it as fast and friendly.

2. An avid user of Google Chrome and cannot change browsers? at least consider turning off certain Google Chrome tracking settings


Examples of a few of the many articles that describe step-by-step how to reduce personal data collected are as follows:

These articles and others outline specific settings that will help greatly reduce activity tracking and personalization in Google. They also discuss turning off location tracking. Keep in mind that by turning off certain tracking and thus improving privacy, you may lose what some regard as "convenience" of targeted ads.


A few highlights from the recommended steps per the articles above are as follows:

  • At https://adssettings.google.com/ set “Ad Personalization” to “off” to reduce targeted/personalized ads in your online sessions.

  • Within the Data & Personalization Settings set Web & App Activity to “pause”; if left to its default, then Google will collect your browsing and searching history.

  • In Settings, set Gmail Allow Chrome Sign-in to OFF: this disables automatic login to the browser whenever you use Gmail, so thereby activities with Chrome are not associated with your Google account.

  • Settings of debatable value: Using “Incognito” mode for browsing, while somewhat useful if you share a computer with others, only stops recording of your browsing destinations locally on your browser, and has no effect on web tracking or ad serving. Using the “Do Not Track” option simply informs web sites that your preference is not to be tracked, but does not obligate them to do so.

  • Add an ad blocking extension to your browser (see blog post Install an ad blocker extension to your browser)


Takeaway

For better privacy while browsing the web, adjust Google’s tracking settings or better yet, seek a more privacy-sensitive browser alternative, of which there are many.

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