2. Juli 2018 - Online Tracking

Tracking protection: Why Chrome and Firefox also fall short


Web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox have features that allow users to automatically tell website operators that they want to opt out of tracking. Why functions like „Do Not Track“ are still not sufficient.

Do not Track reicht nicht aus Online tracking cannot be completely prevented with browser functions alone (Image: / lelepado)

ePrivacy Regulation and browser functions

„For years, the advertising industry has failed to effectively implement voluntary actions such as the ‚do-not-track‘ setting in browsers. Now we shouldn’t complain if lawmakers fix this shortcoming“, said the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in December 2017 with reference to the ePrivacy Regulation.

The built-in features of leading browsers are still inadequate when it comes to tracking protection.

To quote the Google Chrome Privacy Notice: When you browse the web on computers or Android devices, you can send a request to websites not to collect or track your browsing data. The ‚Do Not Track“ feature is turned off by default“.

This means: „Do Not Track“ is (still) only a request that is sent to the operators of websites. Furthermore, „Do Not Track“ is disabled by default.

Therefore, training should include the privacy functions of browsers as well as their limitations.

Don’t forget mobile browsers

Instructions on how to enable the ‚Do Not Track‘ option not only differ from browser to browser.

They also differ according to whether you are using a desktop PC with a Windows operating system, an Android smartphone or an iPhone or iPad.

In fact, the Google Chrome instructions for iPhones and iPads states: „The ‚Do Not Track‘ feature is currently unavailable for iPhones or iPads“.

For Android devices, the procedure for enabling the feature differs slightly from the procedure for desktop users.

Don’t use browser extensions without scrutinising them first

There are numerous web browser plug-ins (extensions) that enhance online privacy for browsers such as Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

Exercise caution here. In the past, we have identified many tools and extensions that purport to block unwanted ads and tracking in order to improve privacy.

In reality, they either intentionally or unintentionally compromised privacy.

Browsers are constantly being updated with new features to prevent unwanted ads, advertisements that violate specific regulations, or secret tracking. Some of these features prevent tracking by social networks like Facebook.

  • The Facebook Container in Firefox isolates the user’s Facebook identity from the rest of the user’s Internet activity, according to Mozilla.
  • After installing the extension, users continue to use Facebook as usual, and Facebook, in turn, can provide its services as usual and display ads.
  • The main difference: It will be much harder for Facebook to use saved activities outside the network to send ads and other personalised messages.

Browsers cannot replace legal regulations

Nevertheless, such technical measures are not enough.

Any browser feature designed to protect against online tracking is a good step towards improving online privacy. But ultimately, only a legal guideline to protect against secret online tracking can provide clarity. All the new browser features do not provide secure protection against unwanted tracking.

Unwanted online tracking must be prevented earlier by imposing legal constraints on the website operator, and not simply through functions in the user’s browser.

Oliver Schonschek
Oliver Schonschek is a physicist, analyst, and technical IT journalist for IT security and data protection.