Do Not Track - What It Is, What It Can Do, and How It Can Protect You

Martin Gschwentner

Have you ever had that unsettling feeling you're being followed? You turn around, but there's not a soul to be seen? It's an unpleasant feeling – one that you should feel with every click that you make online.

You might think that, on the internet, the big equalizer, you're invisible and anonymous. But, in truth, you're being tracked every second you spend online. Someone is tracking you – they might not be after your money, but they're certainly after your data. And that data can be turned into money. Entire business models are based on collecting and analyzing your data and creating user profilers. The good news: You don't have to put up with that.

Do Not Track: What Is It?

Do Not Track (or DNT) is web technology that allows user to decide for themselves whether they want to be tracked by tracking software such as Google Analytics. To be prices: It's an HTTP header field that that prevents websites from analyzing personal data. Almost every browser comes with that option, but DNT needs to be activated by the user.

How Effectively Does Do Not Track Protect My Data?

Do Not Track was born out of the desire of consumer advocates to make the Internet safer for its users and to turn things like targeted advertising and annoying data collection from a compulsion to an option. The idea is simple, the idea desirable. But between the desires of those consumer advocates and the internet they have to work with lie insurmountable obstacles.

The reason: There are no legal requirements to use of Do Not Track. Websites and advertisers can decide for themselves whether they want to obey DNT requirements or not. Two of the more popular sites that support DNT are Reddit and Pinterest. The website All About Do Not Track compiled a list of such websites.

Few adhere to the rules

The list is not at all complete - but it speaks volumes which websites are not featured on it. Microsoft, for example, doesn't support DNT, because there's "no concise understanding on how to interpret the DNT signal." Yahoo and Twitter have initially committed themselves to the use of DNT only to retract that promise shortly thereafter.

The effectiveness of DNT depends on the cooperation of website. Gizmodo compares the feature to sunscreen from the can: It's a product that gives you a sense of security without giving you any real security.

You should still activate DNT

almost every browser comes with a DNT option

activating it is very simple and only takes a few clicks

the technology even works on websites that don't accept the DNT header

a rising popularity among users can lead to more websites accepting DNT

The effectiveness of Do Not Track is still pretty limited

there are no legal requirements to use DNT

websites accept DNT voluntarily – and most simply don't

DNT gives users a false sense of security

So don't rely on overly optimistic technology to protect your data and privacy - there are plenty of other options available. Use our Browser Privacy Check to find out what data your browser transmits to websites - and how you can prevent it.

How Do I Activate Do Not Track?

Almost every browser has the option to activate DNT within its privacy settings. This is how you do it in Chrome:

1. In the section "Settings", click on "Advanced".

2. Open the "Privacy and security" settings.

3. There you'll find the option "Send a "Do Not Track" request with your browsing traffic"

4. An info pop-up will open. Click "Confirm". DNT is now activated.

Going Where Do Not Track Doesn't Go

As we mentioned before, you shouldn't rely on the DNT feature to protect your privacy and data online. There are many other effective options besides DNT to protect yourself on the Web. Browser extensions like Privacy Badger and Disconnect, for example, are great in blocking indivisible trackers. You can also use special browsers like Tor which is practically made for data protection. Ad Blocker can effectively prevent tracking as well.

Do Not Track is a great idea that one day might protect consumers on the internet. Until then, you should consider other options to protect your online privacy – so that you can surf with a clear conscience and without having the constant feeling of someone following you.

Author (German Version): Martin Gschwentner
Martin Gschwentner majored in American Studies and Media Studies in Germany, the USA and France and works as a freelance editor in Paris. He is a doctoral student at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Paris Diderot, where he is researching the influence of money on US politics. On he writes about IT security, data protection and software for the self-employed and small businesses.
English Translator & Editor: Brendan Philipp
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