NSA caught red-handed in Google’s cookie jar: How to opt-out

Image credit: Parker Higgins

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that the NSA piggybacks on Google’s cookie system, which the advertising giant uses to follow us around the web, collecting useful intelligence that it wields to market products. Google is above all an advertising company, and tracking us is how it makes money. As the famous aphorism goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

It’s bad enough that online advertising companies are allowed to track us with virtually no restriction, and to sell the data they collect to other third parties, but now we know some of our worst fears have been realized. The government’s ability to keep tabs on our internet browsing habits is greatly amplified by piggybacking on the tracking infrastructure of the tech companies who do it openly. That’s exactly what’s now happening. Even worse, we learned that the NSA is using “these tracking techniques to help identify targets for offensive hacking operations.”

How can you avoid falling into this corporate-government tracking trap? There’s sadly very little you can do to protect your mobile phone browsing, but a few tweaks on your desktop and laptop will go a long way towards eliminating the possibility that the NSA will use a Google cookie trail to hack into your computer or otherwise invade your privacy.

1.     Don’t use Google Chrome. Yes, it’s fast. Yes, it doesn’t crash very much. Yes, it’s beautiful, and the internet looks shiny and fabulous when viewed through the Chrome browser. But it’s a privacy nightmare. Google is an advertising company first and foremost – an advertising company that happens to offer free search, email, a web browser and mobile operating system. Unsurprisingly, Google’s web browser is not optimized to protect your privacy, but rather, to ensure that your data can easily be collected by Google and other advertising companies. Using Chrome is basically opening up your entire internet experience to Google and saying “Come inside, have some warm milk and all my cookies.” It’s probably not efficacious to do the rest of the things on this list if you don’t knock off using Chrome. Firefox is a good alternative. Sometimes we have to let go of the things we love…

2.     Change your privacy settings in Firefox to restrict the ability of “3rd party sites” (such as advertising networks) from being able to track you.  Instructions to do so are here.

3.     Install the AddBlock Plus add-on. You’ll need to go into the preferences after the installation and disable the “Allow non-intrusive advertising” checkbox, or Google (which has paid the developers of the add-on to be whitelisted) will still be permitted to track you. In addition to blocking malware domains, this tool blocks obnoxious pop-up ads, making the internet a more peaceful place to explore. Also consider using a second anti-tracking add-on, such as Disconnect.me or DoNotTrackMe.

4.     Don’t use Google products like Gmail, or Google Search. If you do, use a different web browser for your interactions with Google’s websites than your other online activities. Alternative search engines exist and provide good information. DuckDuckGo is probably the most privacy protective of them all.

Of course, if you really really don’t want to leave Chrome, you can install tools like AddBlock Plus, and DoNotTrackMe in that browser, as well. But the chances that Google — and therefore the NSA — will stop tracking you if you don’t leave Chrome are slim to none.

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