Ghostery - The eye of the tracker is upon you

Updated: November 10, 2018

Here's a mind-blowing but obvious realization: the Internet is one giant shopping litmus test lab, with billions of voluntary participants helping big corporations fine-tune their products and marketing strategies. This is done without the use of elaborate, interruptive questionnaires. All it takes is some Javascript running behind every visible Web page, and Bob's your uncle.

The most pervasive form of marketing is, you guessed right, online ads. Shown to you in all sorts of shapes and colors, they not only peddle wondrous solutions, they also directly and indirectly measure (i.e. track) the human response to the shown content, and this wealth of statistical data is used to make future products and future ads work even better for the selling party. On its own, this might not be bad, except people are greedy. What might have been just innocent marketing has become one giant data harvesting industry, going way beyond simple browsing habits. If you are not so keen on participating mind and soul, you are probably using an ad blocker tool of some sort. We talked about Noscript, we talked about UMatrix, we talked about Adblock Plus. Today, we will talk about Ghostery.

Teaser

When there's something wrong in your browsing 'hood

Ghostery is a privacy browser extension, available for a range of browsers, both on the desktop and mobile. What it does is, whenever you load a page in your browser, it tries to enumerate the loaded elements, and separate the pure content from so-called "tracking" elements, which might be search engines, ads, sharing buttons, or other types of media. Then, through a simple control panel, the user can manage these elements. You can choose to enable them or disable them, and a few other tricks.

This is no new concept. I've been using Adblock Plus for years now, and it remains my favorite adblocking solution. In conjunction with Noscript, another favorite of mine, it offers excellent, granular control of Web pages, allowing you to minimize or even eliminate non-essential traffic, including all the profiling and tracking bits and pieces. You end up with just content, improved readability, and pages often load faster. There's also a security element (secondary but still somewhat important), as malware and whatnot is often distributed through third-party screens on what you'd otherwise call perfectly legitimate sites.

So why Ghostery then? Well, I wanted to explore other tools in the privacy range. What makes Ghostery interesting is that it seems to sit in between Adblock Plus, which is mostly a passive blocker, hence a perfect tool for everyday use, and Noscript, which can break functionality and requires a much more active mindset. Then, we also have UMatrix, which is even more complex than Noscript, and as such, quite often beyond the reach of most ordinary users. Ghostery can block ads - but it can also block third-party scripts/trackers akin to Noscript but without actually affecting the loading of Javascript. So you end up with unbroken content and less tracking, hence more privacy. Sounds interesting, and we are testing.

Setup & settings

The installation is a trivial thing - pick your browser, go to its relevant add-ons/extension repository, and install Ghostery. Then, start using it. Simple. However, before we do that, I'd like to highlight some of the options and settings. While beautiful and elegant, the UI contains a lot of information, and it does take a little bit of time to learn and use effectively.

Ghostery has simple and advanced view - the latter is much more useful, and actually easier to understand, as it explains what it does. The simple view shows the number of detected and blocked trackers, the page loading speed, and you also have several buttons. If you're not keen on making any big decisions, you can let the extension do that for you. It can use its own "knowledge" of what ought to be shown and what should not. Then, you can also manually trust/restrict sites, and pause Ghostery, in case you encounter functionality problems with the site and you wish to troubleshoot.

Simple view

Smart blocking

The expanded advanced view (toggle the three slider switcher in the top right corner in the simple view) comes with more information. It actually lists all the trackers by type, and allows you to selectively enable/disable them as you see fit. The trackers are separated by category, so you can make better decision on what to leave and what to hide. Essential trackers are probably needed for the site functionality, for instance.

Advanced view

Settings are accessed through the three-dot sign next to the sign-in text. You can tweak the list of trackers, your list of trusted and restricted sites, and more. General settings are mostly around how you interact with the tool.

Global blocking

General settings

Now, Opt in is a tricky one. By default, human Web data sharing is selected (not really opt-in, is it), and you can also allow extension usage analytics. In essence, you teleport the tracking "issue" from third-party scripts into Ghostery. If you do allow both these options, you allow Ghostery to profile your usage. I've read their privacy policy, and this does not sound sinister, on the other hand, as far as I could gather, this does not happen with say Noscript or Adblock Plus - although the latter has their acceptable ads tweak, which lets some of the online ad platforms show their content unless you explicitly block them. So, 'tis a bit odd.

Opt in

Purple Box is an overlay element that lets you interact with Ghostery in a simple, quick manner without having to access the above menu every time. It will show in the bottom right corner of any page, hover there for a few seconds, and allow you to enable/disable elements. Works fine, unless you have other overlay items in the bottom right corner, like for instance, cookie control tools. But it's no biggie overall.

Purple button Purple button, blocked

Some of the extra stuff seems locked/grayed out. Not sure why. Maybe you need to be a signed-in user, which also gives you configuration syncing across devices, or maybe these are features that the company is going to develop over time. This did not impede my browsing experience, though, and I did not feel any essential functionality was missing.

Tracker busting

And so I started playing with Ghostery. Overall, the tool works well. It's simple and pleasant to use. Site trust/restriction allows you to reduce your workload over time. Very quickly, you will have developed a detailed list of how you map the trustworthiness of the wider Web. In general, Ghostery is permissive, so you can gradually introduce tighter restrictions. On the other hand, it means more tracking in the short term. But it does make sense, because some trackers (the term has a negative connotation) are genuinely useful. Alas, because of the way personal data is so frivolously used and abused nowadays, people automatically associate any tracking with shady activities directed against their privacy and freedom.

Working

Small annoyances

One of the things that surprised me is that pages often load FASTER without any blocking in place. The moment I started blocking elements through this extension, the page load times went up, pretty much consistently. Sometimes by a small margin, sometimes more. Not sure why, but I guess Ghostery's blocking action have something to do with it. I would expect it to be the other way around. However, the variation in the loading times also indicates that browser caching, overall Internet speed and other factors also play a role, so it's not easy judging this or any other extension in isolation. Overall, the impact wasn't big, and I didn't feel like the browsing performance was suffering in a noticeable way. Then again, I was also using Adblock Plus in parallel, which blocks ads in the first place.

Faster loading without blocking

Another thing that surprised me - there were no replacement icons for social media icons. Perhaps it depends on implementation, but for instance, there were no such icons for the ShareThis block that I'm using on Dedoimedo. The elements were removed, which is what Ghostery is supposed to do, great, but no placeholders. Not a biggie, because Adblock Plus also silently sanitizes the pages, but if the settings specify something, then it should work.

No replacement icon

ShareThis buttons were not replaced with Ghostery placeholder icons.

Conclusion

Ghostery is an interesting tool, with a pleasant interface, flexible and granular control of tracking elements, some odd quirks, and a questionable opt-in feature. It is indeed as I expected, a bridge between a plug-n-play ad blocker and a fully featured Javascript manager like Noscript. The good thing is, it works well in unison with either one of these, so you can mix. Shake 'n' bake. For example, intimidated by Noscript or UMatrix? You can use Adblock Plus plus [sic] Ghostery. The former for ads, the latter for extra trackers, no crippling of Javascript functionality. And then, the tool can block ads on its own, too.

I believe Ghostery works best in the complementary mode. It is also best suited for less skilled users who seek more control than just ad blocking, and the cross-platform availability sure makes it appealing. The one thing that remains outstanding is the use of the opt-in policy. Not sure how that fits into the larger scheme of things. That said, I believe it's worth testing and exploring. So far, I'm pleased with its mode of work, and the results from my escapade are promising. Now whether one should really care about these trackers and all that, well that's a separate story. Or as they say, all your ad are belong to us. Take care, children of the Internets.

Cheers.

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