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Browser’s, Search Engines, and Privacy

Browser’s, Search Engines, and Privacy

Photo by Agnieszka Boeske on Unsplash

Get the basics of browsing down and understand the technology you use every day better. This article lays out exactly what Browsers and Search Engines are and how they work, along with what role your data plays into this, how it shapes your experiences online, what are cookies, interesting facts, and ways to protect your data better.

What actually is a Browser?

According to Google Search, a Browser is a graphical user interface for displaying HTML files, used to navigate the World Wide Web. If you speak english and NOT tech talk, you may not be an expert with words like “program”, “graphical user interface”, and “HTML”.

In that case, all you really need to know is that the Browser is the “App” you use to “browse” (or interact with) the internet. Every website can only be accessed with a Browser Program (also known as an app). If you’re reading this right now, you’re reading it on a Browser. The most popular browsers in use in the world are; Google Chrome, Safari (Apple) , Internet Explorer/Edge (Microsoft), Mozilla Firefox, and Opera (according to W3Counter).

Interesting note: You cannot access Internet Explorer on an Apple device and the same goes vice versa with Safari on Microsoft devices. These are the “Default” browsers that come standard on your device. If you are using Safari you have an Apple device, and if you’re using Internet Explorer or Edge you have a Windows Operating system. You don’t have to only use your default browser though, check out my tutorial here on setting up a more private browser and search engine. Also, if you’re still using Internet Explorer, you should really switch to a newer browser. Internet Explorer (aka, IE), is no longer supported by it’s makers and that means it’s not secure, and it’s not going to work well with modern websites.

Google’s definition of a “Browser”

What does a Search Engine really do?

Search Engines are also computer programs, but instead of “displaying” a web page like a browser does, the search engine reads it. Actually, the search engine just takes whatever you type into it, also known as a query, and tries to match it up with the web page data it has already read and stored.

Breaking this idea down another way, think about a librarian. She has a new book come in and has to enter it into the library system, that’s known in search engine speak as “indexing“. You come in to the library sometime later and ask for this book, that’s your “query“. The librarian has the book title, author, publisher, and other important information available to ensure she’s found you the correct book and can point you in the right direction to find it. Search Engines do this same exact process but for billions of websites and at an incredible speed.

How do Browsers collect my data and what are they doing with it?

Browser’s collect data and use it in different ways, but so do mobile devices and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. It sounds scary right? The browser is collecting your data! Maybe its spooky because we don’t actually know what data is being collected, why it’s being collected and how it’s being used. One very key point to take into account here, is that some data collection is so good. It makes whatever you’re doing so much easier to do.

Most of your data is being aggregated with other peoples data and is not personalized to you. In other words, any blog page you go to isn’t able to pinpoint your exact location, or know your favorite color, or even that you specifically went to this webpage. Most websites are using your data to tell them how their website is performing but in the data analysis you show up as your phone operating system, or the country you’re visiting the website in. You aren’t even a you in the data, your data in those instances just tell a story to the website owner about how well their website is performing for your device type, or whether they are getting traffic from the country or region they are hoping to.

There is of course the question of how exactly does essentially anonymous data create personalized ads when using different devices and on different machines? This brings us to your Browser, your browser uses Cookies to store data. Cookies are great, they really are, they will keep items in your cart if you have to step away from an online order and decide to come back to it later. Cookies will keep your name, address, and other information stored so you don’t have to fill it out every time you want to ship something. Don’t hate on cookies y’all, cookies are always a good thing, and you have more control over them than you think, because cookies really do expire. And anytime you want to, you can clear your cookies and your data will no longer be saved. More modern sites often save your cookie information in their database and these are known as persistent cookies. You don’t have much control over persistent cookies unless a website is GDPR compliant, but you can turn off third party cookies in your browser settings. That means you can stem the flow of your data being shared with advertisers.

Interesting note: In 2018 the GDPR regulation came in and told websites operating in Europe that they needed to provide a way for people to receive a copy of their data, as well as request it be destroyed if they wished it to. Many U.S. websites honor GDPR Compliance and you will often see it reflected in their cookie policy. This was partly due to more and more websites using persistent cookies.

How do Search Engines know which ads to show me?

Your browser isn’t the only thing tracking your behavior, and yes that is also super spooky! Social Media websites, your phone, your computer browser are all sharing information about your preferences, especially if you are using your Google Account, let’s say, on a Google Browser, or Android phone. No matter what app, or website you use, your behavior is being tracked, stored and reported back to give you a more personalized experience. But it can, and usually is, also being shared with Third Party Services. In other words, advertisers. Not everyone hates this idea. It’s not terrible, honestly, sometimes it’s better to see ads that are relevant to you than completely random ads that make you go what the heck?! But, also, you don’t have complete control over what data is being shared, how much data is getting collected and when that data should be deleted. Due to those facts, I highly recommend setting up DuckDuckGo as your Default Search Engine, and Mozilla Firefox as your default web browser. Check out my post here outlining how to set up a more private browser and search engine experience. These programs prioritize privacy and protect your data right out of the box so you don’t have to spend any time adjusting settings.

Also, if you’re wanting less data to be tracked on your phone as well, download and start using the DuckDuckGo mobile browser on your phone.

Share your thoughts, concerns, and questions about Browsers, Data, Search Engines and Ads! What are ways you try to protect your data? Are you comfortable with your data being stored without your knowledge? Or do you need more information about what Browsers really do?