The internet thinks I want dresses and I love it

When you go undercover on the internet, ad networks don’t know who you are, so you aren't targeted by ads. And the ads you do see totally miss the mark. It really reduces your online friction. Here’s how you can test your browser and do it, too.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

I started a couple years ago using a non-tracking search engine, called DuckDuckGo, and a log-less VPN (Virtual Private Network), called VyprVPN. Now, when I go online, the ads I see most often are for clothing I wouldn't wear, such as dresses.

Also: The best VPN services: Our 10 favorite vendors

But, as a highly distractible person, I like seeing ads for products I'll never buy. I can ignore them and go about my business. 


However, this blissful state took time. The first smart thing I did was get off Facebook about five years ago.
I was on for a couple of months to connect with college friends. But after I realized that I was spending more time fixing my privacy settings than catching up with them, I cancelled the account.
It was obvious that Facebook's mission was to sell ads, and that it wasn't too concerned about its users. It was only later that I realized that I'd avoided a giant time sink, as well. 


I first noticed the improvement a few months after converting to DuckDuckGo (DDG) as my default search engine on iOS and macOS. DDG is available for Windows and Android too. My online life has become even better.
DDG helps by not sharing your search terms with advertisers. But the web is a hive of scum and villainy -- a virtual surveillance state, where maintaining your privacy is a low-level war with the capitalist running dogs that have staked out highly profitable franchises.


VPNs protect your data from snoopers, and logless VPNs don't even track your browsing habits. Even if you get caught up in -- hypothetically, of course -- an entirely fake WITCH HUNT federal investigation, even the might of the US government can't force them to divulge what they don't have.
But another benefit is that VPNs conceal your location from advertisers and everyone else. When you do go to an ad-infested web page, all the location-based ads are for a place where I'm not, so they're easy to ignore, too.


Cookies are the most common tracking device, and modern browsers all have cookie management tools. I don't worry about cookies from reputable sites, like my bank or favorite news sites.
But once or twice a year I go through and delete cookies from sites that aren't important to me. Amazon doesn't seem to sell my data to outside advertisers, so I give it a pass as well.

Other trackers

Fingerprinting, a technique that uses obscure details of your system config, such as your installed fonts, is commonly used to track you. For a quick test of how much data your device reveals, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Panopticlick. EFF said:

Panopticlick will analyze how well your browser and add-ons protect you against online tracking techniques. We'll also see if your system is uniquely configured—and thus identifiable—even if you are using privacy-protective software.

It turns out that even with a VPN and the latest versions of iOS and Safari, my system is leaking a lot more data than I'd like. But as I'm pretty happy with my current level of anonymity, I'm not rushing to make changes.

Must read

The Storage Bits take

Why do I like to avoid the ad networks? It's partly because I'm easily distracted, and I don't want more distractions.
But it's mostly a matter of principle. I prefer to live my life as I wish, without being tracked, packaged, and my attention sold. I want to be left alone to pursue my own version of happiness, instead of the mass, or even highly targeted, marketing version.
One more point. If you are engaged in activities that powerful entities don't like, my strategies are woefully inadequate. I avoid ads, not nation-state surveillance. But that's my level of concern, and it works for me.
Courteous comments welcome, of course.

Facebook alternatives: Social apps you need to try

Previous and related coverage:

How to choose the VPN that's right for you

You'll find a lot of VPN guides out there, but how relevant are their recommendations to your personal needs? Here's a better way to think about your VPN decision, and what matters most to you, your usage, and your location.

Why your smartwatch and wearable devices are the next big privacy nightmare

Smartwatches and other wearables will be a must-have for personalised healthcare, but a privacy backlash could put an end to all that.

Two thirds of US consumers say Government should do more to protect data privacy

In the wake of breaches, US consumers are concerned more than ever about their data.

US telcos caught selling your location data again: Senator demands new laws

US Senator Ron Wyden renewed his call for new laws that would ban telcos from selling users' location data.

Editorial standards