“I don’t have a TikTok account,” you might think. “I’m fine.” But the modern internet is more intricate than that. Through ads and deals, data brokers can surreptitiously embed cookies, scripts, and “tracking pixels” on entirely unrelated sites and even emails, allowing them to access your purchase history and other valuable data. And the culprits extend beyond TikTok—Meta, perhaps most notably, openly acknowledges how it harvests your data.

This means you could be susceptible to tracking from services like TikTok and Facebook even if you’ve never used them. Fortunately, there are tools available to detect when you’re being tracked and by whom.

How do companies track me?
Currently, there are two primary methods of online data-tracking: cookies, which are on the decline, and pixel trackers, which are more intricate.

You’re likely familiar with cookies, small packets of information that websites use to store data such as your password to keep you logged in. However, in addition to these “necessary” cookies, there are third-party cookies that track your browsing session, and this information can be sold to data firms later.

Third-party cookies are perhaps the most overt way you might be tracked online. If you’ve recently visited a website operating in the EU (or certain states), you’ve probably encountered a form asking you to consent to cookies. While clicking through these forms may be a minor inconvenience, they have significantly curbed the stealthiness of cookies and made them easier to block.

With Google’s impending attempt to phase out cookies entirely, data brokers have had to adopt more sophisticated methods.

Enter the tracking pixel. Similar to cookies, these use images rather than text. Companies can embed transparent or invisible pixels on your screen, and when your browser loads them, they receive a signal, allowing them to track which parts of a website you’re accessing and when.

While the principle remains the same, there is little legislation on tracking pixels, meaning users who had grown accustomed to the government crackdown on cookies now face a new challenge in data vigilance. Nowadays, some site elements even come equipped with their own scripts that can surpass the capabilities of cookies.

How do I know when I’m being tracked?
The integration of tracking pixels and scripts directly into a website’s code offers a benefit: with some effort, you can detect when you’re being monitored.

When tracking pixels are loaded into a site, you can see their tags in that site’s code. By right-clicking and selecting Inspect from the dropdown menu, you can begin your investigation. This method works on Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Edge, though Safari requires more steps.

However, manual inspection is not ideal. There are tools available that automate the process and provide context.

One of the most recent and robust tools is Feroot PageScanner, a free Chrome extension developed by experts who testified on TikTok for Congress.

Feroot PageScanner offers an immediate interface to notify you when your data is being tracked. While it doesn’t block trackers, it displays real-time notifications indicating when and by whom your data is being tracked. Its menu provides a detailed list of active trackers, their operators, and their purposes. Additionally, you can examine any scripts running on the webpage without entering the Inspect menu.

While intended for enterprise clients conducting security analyses on their sites, Feroot PageScanner is suitable for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of the issue.

“TikTok is not the biggest problem by far,” said Feroot CEO Ivan Tsarynny, who previously testified on TikTok for Congress.

How to block online trackers
Once you understand the extent of the problem, there are several tools available to regain control of your online privacy.

Ghostery, similar to PageScanner, can identify and block trackers. While it lacks PageScanner’s depth of information, it can restrict trackers. However, Ghostery may conflict with PageScanner, so it’s best used after identifying threats.

uBlock Origin is another powerful open-source ad blocker. It allows precise blocking of elements on any site and offers customizable block lists. Though it provides less information on tracking compared to PageScanner or Ghostery, it excels in blocking unwanted content.

Privacy Badger, also open source, focuses on trackers rather than ads. It learns to block trackers over time, continuously updating with new threats. While it lacks detailed information on tracking, it can be beneficial for those who regularly visit less mainstream websites.

Lastly, VPNs can hide your browsing data by routing it through other sources, masking your IP address. While some VPNs are paid services, a few encrypt data for free. However, be cautious with free VPNs, as not all are trustworthy.

Note that tracking pixels can also be present in emails. To protect yourself, follow our guide on how to prevent email images from loading by default.