Breaking Your Filter Bubble

When we browse online, we are tracked by a range of companies. Some of this tracking occurs so that site owners understand how users interact with their sites. Other forms of tracking take a closer look at our interactions and online behavior.

With more people accessing their news via social media, the public is starting to understand that filters affect which news they see and the implications tracking has for privacy.

Personalization, Bias and Bubbles

If we have Gmail accounts (personal, work or both) and we use Google for web searches, we usually search while logged into Google. This gives Google a very complete view of what we search for, which allows "personalized" searches of what Google thinks we want to see. (If you want to see a small subset of what Google knows about you, visit https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity when logged into a Google account.)

"Personalization" ensures two people searching for the same topic won't get the same results. However, when results are invisibly tailored "for" us, bias can appear. There have also been substantial charges that Google has abused its position as a search-engine leader.

All social media services, from Facebook to Twitter to Pinterest to LinkedIn, track our online activity. By this point, most of us are blind to the ubiquitous social media buttons that sprout like weeds online. But these sharing icons are a visual indicator that not only can users share their posts on social media sites, these sites are also tracking our paths across the web and recording which sites we visit.

The same mechanisms that target ads to us also target search and news to us, and this can create what some people call a filter bubble. In very general terms, a filter bubble occurs when we are only presented with information, news and perspectives with which we are likely to agree or that confirm our preconceived notions. Filter bubbles ensure that we stay comfortable and have limited opportunities to interact with people and ideas with whom we disagree.

When using social media, taking quizzes can expose huge amounts of personal data to trackers. In some cases, the companies behind the quizzes use the data to compile personality profiles that are used in political campaigns. Even seemingly simple things like hitting a "like" button or responding via emoji can allow for fairly precise tracking. Fortunately, avoiding this form of tracking is simple: Stop taking the quizzes, and stop using emoji-based reactions.

Sites where people create accounts also use and allow a range of third-party trackers that monitor our activity. To get a sense of which trackers are placed on a site, use Lightbeam, a Firefox-only add-on that allows you to create a list and a visualization of trackers that are placed by sites.

How to Minimize Tracking

Third-party tracking is pervasive online. Several thousand tracking companies quietly collect information about users who are never told what information is being gathered and why. Data collected by third-party trackers are often sold to data brokers, who combine data from multiple sources (a process known as "data enhancement" or "data recombination") and then sell access to that data.

Some news sites, like the Huffington Post, place upward of 100 trackers on our computers or smartphones when we visit. Trackers can also get information based on our searches; in some cases, this can lead to sensitive information — like searches for health information — getting shared with data brokers.

Fortunately, we can use tools to help protect us from tracking by advertisers, politicians and other undisclosed parties who use personal information without notification or our informed consent. At the same time, we can disrupt filter bubbles and gain a level of privacy protection.

To block trackers and other services that collect and use our information without notification or consent, use two browser add-ons: Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin. Privacy Badger does a good job of picking up most third-party trackers, while uBlock Origin sometimes catches trackers that Privacy Badger might miss. Both browser extensions have versions for Chrome and Firefox.

When you're finished on a social media site, logout and clear your cookies, cache and browsing history. In fact, clearing your cookies, cache and history regularly minimizes the amount of data available to be used by trackers (see these instructions for Chrome and Firefox).

Firefox also has an add-on named Self-Destructing Cookies that will destroy cookies automatically after a tab is closed or after the browser is closed. This can help prevent tracking and it can also protect against someone accessing your computer and being able to access sites where you're logged in.

Unfortunately, tracking occurs in multiple ways and blocking trackers will only go so far. Some companies use a technique called browser fingerprinting that can be partially blocked by blocking JavaScript. In Firefox, the best JavaScript-blocking option is NoScript. In Chrome, try ScriptSafe.

Tools for Anonymity and Less Biased Search

Because tracking requires sites to know who you are in some form, tools that increase anonymity help reduce tracking. The Tor project protects against tracking and allows users to approach anonymity online (we say "approach" because true anonymity online does not exist). Using Tor to search for sensitive information provides a good level of protection for most people.

All of the steps above that protect against ad tracking also help get us less biased search results, but you can expand what you see online by using different search services. These services all provide more rigorous protections for user privacy than mainstream search engines:

●      Duck Duck Go;

●      Disconnect.me; and

●      StartPage (or https://startpage.info for an education-specific version).

Set your browser's default search option to something besides Google to reduce the chance of accidentally giving Google additional data.

When searching for sensitive information you don't want shared, a good approach is to use Tor and search via Duck Duck Go, StartPage or Disconnect.me. If that's not enough, adding in a virtual private network (VPN) provides an additional layer of protection.

Virtual Private Networks

For people who access the internet from outside the home or office, using a VPN can provide levels of protection from everything from a nosy kid playing hacker on the coffee shop Wi-Fi to an identify thief. VPNs also obscure your IP address and many VPN services have servers in locations around the world. Using a VPN and connecting via a server in a different part of the world can help break any location-based tracking.

While there are free VPN options, we do not recommend them, as many of the free VPNs actually track and share your online behavior. If you are going to use a VPN, research an option that works for you based on your needs. If obscuring your browsing and connection history is essential, make sure you use a VPN that does not store any access logs. These two guides provide a list of things to consider, along with recommendations.

All in all, it's easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to controlling how our information is collected and shared. However, we can all take some straightforward, achievable steps to gain additional control. For most of us, making some minor adjustments in how we browse online will have an outsized impact. By taking some steps to understand how we are tracked and how that tracking is used, we can understand how this affects the information we see. Over time, this allows us to make more informed and empowered choices over what we read and how we share.