4/19/2022: Tracker blocking options

A guide to tracker blocking

Plus: Another smart home disaster, a chance to clear out tech junk, and a slick PowerPoint alternative

Got a moment to spare? Head to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Cover Your Tracks website and click the big “Test Your Browser” button. I’ll wait.

Now, if your results look like the image above—with a warning that you’re not protected against tracking—it means that marketers and advertisers can easily follow you around the web, building up information about your browsing habits.

As a result, you might see the same ads following you around from site to site. Because many web ads require this type of cross-site tracking to function, you’re also probably seeing a lot of ads in general, which in turn means your phone or computer is working harder to display them all. My guess is you’re either using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge without any settings tweaks or tracker-blocking extensions.

Although I’ve written about tracker blocking in bits and pieces over the years, I think it’s time to compile the best anti-tracking options in one place. If you want a less invasive internet with fewer annoying ads, here are some tools to check out:

Desktop browsers

Brave has the most aggressive ad and tracker blocking of any web browser that I’ve tested, and it’s the only one that fully passes the aforementioned Cover Your Tracks test out of the box. Beyond just blocking standard trackers, it also does a great job stopping “fingerprinting,” a method that trackers can use to identify you based on unique attributes of your operating system or browser settings.

That said, I don’t like how Brave pushes cryptocurrency on users and tries to replace all web ads with its own convoluted advertising system.

Safari, Firefox, Vivaldi, and Opera offer decent tracking protection as well, though they don’t quite match Brave’s fingerprint protections. DuckDuckGo is also testing a new desktop browser that’s worth keeping an eye on, even if it’s not quite ready for primetime in my experience.

Browser extensions

Don’t want to replace your browser with something different? Installing an anti-tracking extension for your web browser is the next-best option.

uBlock Origin—not to be confused with regular uBlock—is my favorite extension for blocking both ads and trackers online. It’s effective in my experience, and has been shown to use far less memory than AdBlockPlus, another popular option. It also blocks ads from YouTube, and it stops a particularly sneaky form of tracking that hides inside the addresses of web pages.

If you have qualms about blocking ads outright, check out the EFF’s Privacy Badger extension instead. While its tracking protection does incidentally block some invasive ads, it doesn’t go out of its way to obliterate online advertising like uBlock does.

On iPhones

I’ve previously written about Lockdown as a way to minimize tracking in iOS apps, above and beyond Apple’s own “Ask App Not to Track” prompts in iOS 15. But one thing I haven’t mentioned is that you can also enable Lockdown in Safari. Once you’ve installed and set up the Lockdown app, head to iOS Settings > Safari > Extensions, then set the Lockdown toggle to the on position.

This will prevent websites from connecting with known tracker sites. You can also customize the blocking further by opening the Lockdown app and tapping on “Block List.” (Note that Lockdown also offers an optional VPN subscription; this is not necessary for the core blocking service.)

You can also try other privacy-centric browsers, such as Brave, DuckDuckGo, and Firefox, but because they rely on the same rendering engine as Safari, their tracker blocking ends up being worse than Safari with the Lockdown extension enabled.

On Android

Android does not yet have a system-wide tracker blocker that’s as easy to use as Lockdown, but DuckDuckGo is working on one. You can get on the waitlist for its private beta by downloading DuckDuckGo’s Android app, tapping the vertical ellipses menu, then heading to Settings > App Tracking Protection.

While you wait, Brave, DuckDuckGo, and Vivaldi offer solid tracking protection in their respective browsers. You can also use Firefox for Android and install uBlock Origin or Privacy Badger via the “Add-Ons” menu.

Lastly, you can disable personalized advertising on Android as a whole under Settings > Privacy > Ads, then select “Delete Advertising ID.” This is not a privacy panacea, but will at least limit some cross-app tracking on the platform.

More to come

I’m still exploring some additional anti-tracking tools for the future. I’m especially intrigued by a service called NextDNS, which promises tracker blocking across a wide range of devices with a small amount of setup, and I’d like to experiment with network-wide tracking protection on a Raspberry Pi. Let me know if either is of interest, and I’ll make them a priority!

Need to know

Another smart home shutdown: Insteon, a company that’s been making smart home products since 2005, appears to have abandoned its business and customers without warning. As Stacey Higginbotham reports, Insteon’s smart home hubs became unresponsive on Friday, and multiple executives have scrubbed any mention of the company from their LinkedIn profiles. Insteon hasn’t issued any sort of comment, and its listed phone number doesn’t work.

It’s the worst-case scenario for Insteon owners, who are now scrambling for alternative ways to control their existing hardware, but it also speaks to the chaotic state of smart homes as a whole. A new smart home standard called Matter is due out later this year after numerous delays, and in theory it should allow many more devices to work together offline, without relying on one company’s bridge or hub controller device. Still, it’s unclear how many existing devices will support Matter, and what will become of those that don’t. (Insteon, whose hubs and devices communicated through a proprietary protocol, may have struggled in an interoperable world either way.)

I’m not saying you should avoid all smart home products right now, but I would only target specific use cases—like, say, security cameras or thermostats—and abstain from any huge investments in anything that revolves around a hub or bridge. You don’t want to end up in an Insteon-like scenario yourself.

Easier Android switching: Google has launched a new “Switch to Android” app for the iPhone, helping users migrate their contacts, calendars, photos, and videos onto a new Android phone. The app also provides instructions on how to turn off iMessage so that text messages show up properly, and it offers a way to migrate online photos from iCloud to either Google Photos or Google Drive.

Of course, switching ecosystems isn’t actually that simple. You’ll still have to track down and potentially re-purchase any apps you’ve installed on the iPhone, and you’ll have to do without certain Apple services that Android lacks, such as iMessage, Facetime, and Apple News. But if you’re set on making the switch, the new app should make migrating a little easier.

(Apple also offers a “Move to iOS” app for Android, though many Play Store reviewers now claim that it doesn’t work.)

T-Mobile’s unlimited Google Photos: In other Google ecosystem news, T-Mobile is letting its wireless customers bring back unlimited Google Photos storage after Google took it away last year. The catch is that you’ll also need a 2 TB Google One storage plan, which costs $10 per month or $100 per year. And while that 2 TB can be shared among up to six family members, only the main T-Mobile account holder gets unlimited photo storage.

Most users will struggle to reach the 2 TB storage limit either way, but not having to worry at all about storage was what part of what made Google Photos appealing in the first place. With Google’s increasing emphasis on subscriptions instead of ad revenue, I wonder if T-Mobile’s offer is the first step toward bringing unlimited storage back for anyone who’s willing to pay for it.

Tip of the moment

Clear out your tech junk: On Friday, April 22, UBreakiFix stores is holding a recycling event for Earth Day. That means it’s a fine time to clear out any old electronics that you can’t easily sell for cash.

UBreakiFix’s eligible device list includes DVD players, cables, keyboards, mouses, and printers, most of which will have little to no value on tech buyback sites. You can find nearby UBreakiFix stores by scrolling down to the “Find your store” section on this page.

For phones, tablets, wearables, and other high-value gadgets, I suggest trying to sell them instead. Flipsy and SellCell are great resources for comparing prices at various tech buyback sites. You can also check out the new buyback program at Back Market, or use Phoneswap to trade up between used iPhones.

With these buyback sites, you’ll get a prepaid shipping label for easily shipping off used gear, and will receive money in return (typically via PayPal or equivalent services). For folks who are willing to put in more legwork, there’s always Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, or Swappa, where you can list your own devices and sell them directly to other people.

If you don’t have a uBreakiFix nearby, fret not. Best Buy stores will let you recycle up to three items per day at any time of the year, so you can avoid sending them to the landfill. You can even get 15% off a new router by bringing in your old one.

Now try this

Markdown in Google Docs: For a faster way to format text in Google Docs, head to Tools > Preferences, then check off the “Automatically Detect Markdown.”

Now, you can type # before any line to quickly insert a large heading, ## for a smaller heading, or more hashtags (up to six) for even smaller headings. You can also surround your text with *one asterisk for italics*, **two asterisks for bold**, or –dashes for crossed-out text-.

If you haven’t already, try combining this with Pageless view to give yourself a minimalist writing surface in Google Docs. You can enable this under File > Page Setup, then selecting “Pageless.” Perhaps it’s the baby step you need before graduating to a full-blown Markdown editor.

A slick PowerPoint alternative: Pitch is relatively new presentation app that I just wrote about over at Fast Company. It’s simple to use, has lots of templates for getting started, and offers a long list of shapes and stickers to spiff up your slides.

Pitch’s latest feature is especially neat: Click the “Record” button at the top, and you can embed videos of yourself into your slides. Each slide can have its own video, and each video can be resized or repositioned to any part of the screen. I’ve yet to see anything else quite like it. The app is free to use and only requires an $8 per month subscription for certain business-class features, such as analytics and access control.

Around the web

Spend wisely

LG’s OLED TV prices continue to fall amid increasing competition from Sony and Samsung. Right now you can get a 48-inch set for $897 or a 55-incher for $997 by using the code SAVE100 at checkout. Both are $100 off the somewhat-typical sale prices from Amazon and other retailers. (For more on what to look for in a TV, check out my guide from last fall.)

Other notable deals:

Thanks for your support!

Greetings from Maryland, where I’m visiting my folks for the week and getting some much-needed help with the kids, who are off school. This of course means I have once again activated Serious Travel Computing Mode, as pictured here:

For the eagle-eyed: Yes, I did try to run Elden Ring on a thin-and-light laptop with integrated graphics. It did not go well.

Got any tech questions you’d like me to answer? Just reply to this email to get in touch.

Until next week,


Previously: Essential AirPods tips

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