You open your browser to look at the Web. Do you know who is looking back at you?
Over a recent week of Web surfing, I peered under the hood of Google Chrome and found it brought along a few thousand friends. Shopping, news and even government sites quietly tagged my browser to let ad and data companies ride shotgun while I clicked around the Web.
This was made possible by the Web’s biggest snoop of all: Google. Seen from the inside, its Chrome browser looks a lot like surveillance software.
Lately I’ve been investigating the secret life of my data, running experiments to see what technology really gets up to under the cover of privacy policies that nobody reads. It turns out, having the world’s biggest advertising company make the most popular Web browser was about as smart as letting kids run a candy shop.
It made me decide to ditch Chrome for a new version of nonprofit Mozilla’s Firefox, which has default privacy protections. Switching involved less inconvenience than you might imagine.
My tests of Chrome vs. Firefox unearthed a personal data caper of absurd proportions. In a week of Web surfing on my desktop, I discovered 11,189 requests for tracker “cookies” that Chrome would have ushered right onto my computer but were automatically blocked by Firefox. These little files are the hooks that data firms, including Google itself, use to follow what websites you visit so they can build profiles of your interests, income and personality.
Chrome welcomed trackers even at websites you would think would be private. I watched Aetna and the Federal Student Aid website set cookies for Facebook and Google. They surreptitiously told the data giants every time I pulled up the insurance and loan service’s log-in pages.
And that’s not the half of it.
Look in the upper right corner of your Chrome browser. See a picture or a name in the circle? If so, you’re logged in to the browser, and Google might be tapping into your Web activity to target ads. Don’t recall signing in? I didn’t, either. Chrome recently started doing that automatically when you use Gmail.
Chrome is even sneakier on your phone. If you use Android, Chrome sends Google your location every time you conduct a search. (If you turn off location sharing it still sends your coordinates out, just with less accuracy.)
Firefox isn’t perfect — it still defaults searches to Google and permits some other tracking. But it doesn’t share browsing data with Mozilla, which isn’t in the data-collection business.
At a minimum, Web snooping can be annoying. Cookies are how a pair of pants you look at in one site end up following you around in ads elsewhere. More fundamentally, your Web history — like the color of your underpants — ain’t nobody’s business but your own. Letting anyone collect that data leaves it ripe for abuse by bullies, spies and hackers.
Choosing a browser is no longer just about speed and convenience — it’s also about data defaults.
I felt hoodwinked when Google quietly began signing Gmail users into Chrome last fall. Google says the Chrome shift didn’t cause anybody’s browsing history to be “synced” unless they specifically opted in — but I found mine was being sent to Google and don’t recall ever asking for extra surveillance. (You can turn off the Gmail auto-login by searching “Gmail” in Chrome settings and switching off “Allow Chrome sign-in.”)
After the sign-in shift, Johns Hopkins associate professor Matthew Green made waves in the computer science world when he blogged he was done with Chrome. “I lost faith,” he told me. “It only takes a few tiny changes to make it very privacy unfriendly.”
When you use Chrome, signing into Gmail automatically logs in the browser to your Google account. When “sync” is also on, Google receives your browsing history.
There are ways to defang Chrome, which is much more complicated than just using “Incognito Mode.” But it’s much easier to switch to a browser not owned by an advertising company.
Like Green, I’ve chosen Firefox, which works across phones, tablets, PCs and Macs. Apple’s Safari is also a good option on Macs, iPhones and iPads, and the niche Brave browser goes even further in trying to jam the ad-tech industry.
What does switching to Firefox cost you? It’s free, and downloading a different browser is much simpler than changing phones.
And as a nonprofit, it earns money when people make searches in the browser and click on ads — which means its biggest source of income is Google. Mozilla’s chief executive says the company is exploring new paid privacy services to diversify its income.
Its biggest risk is that Firefox might someday run out of steam in its battle with the Chrome behemoth. Even though it’s the No. 2 desktop browser,with about 10 percent of the market, major sites could decide to drop support, leaving Firefox scrambling.