June 19, 2022

Privacy Tip of the Week: Use an Ad Blocker

Posted by Rhiannon

The internet is pretty great, right? But, like most things, it does have its drawbacks. One of the most irritating things web browsers face is the constant barrage of ads. They interrupt our videos, stretch across web pages, and assault us with annoying (and sometimes loud!) pop-ups.

Aside from the general annoyance, digital advertising also comes with a major creep-factor. Many of the ads we see seem to know too much about us. They show us the products we’ve looked up and places we’ve visited. Sometimes, it even seems they can read our minds and listen in on our private conversations. These behaviours are harmful to our privacy, and frankly just weird. Thankfully, the constant bombardment of ads doesn’t need to be a fact of life. Tools like a no log VPN can help prevent ads from getting your data. Meanwhile, you can avoid ads altogether with the help of ad blockers. There are several reasons to use an ad blocker. Here’s what you should know.

  • Types of ads
  • Non-targeted vs. targeted advertising
  • Why is digital advertising dangerous?
  • How do ad blockers help?

Types of Ads

Digital advertising comes in many different forms, some of which are disguised so well, they don’t immediately register as ads. The most common types of digital advertising that you can use an ad blocker for include:

Display Ads

These are the simplest and most common ads online, typically made up of image and text. They may appear as banners, pop-ups, sidebars and more. Websites sell advertisers space on their pages to put these ads. In general, display ads do not appear in search results.

Native Advertising

These ads are ones that are integrated into a webpage in such a way that they look like they’re meant to be there, rather than slapped over existing content. For example, when you make a google search, you may notice that the first several results are all for products related to your search. While these items look like normal search results, they’ll probably be marked with the word “Ad,” to let you know someone paid to put them there. Native ads specifically on search engines may also be referred to as search engine marketing (SEM).

Social Media Ads

There are two types of advertising you may see on social media. The first is similar to native advertising. It will be disguised as a post that would normally be on the platform. This type of ad is typically marked with a banner that says “ad,” or “sponsored post,” and is always paid for. The second is considered “organic” advertising, in which a brand makes a regular post to promote their product and just hopes their followers see and share it. For example, an influencer might promote a pair of sunglasses in a video, and they just trust that their followers will naturally see the video.

Video Ads

As the name suggests, these ads take the form of videos. They may be placed on a web page as a display ad or native ad, or they may be inserted into existing videos from platforms like YouTube and Facebook, forcing you to watch the ad before you can proceed with the content you want to watch.

Email Advertising

If you’ve signed up for a website’s email subscription list, you may receive ads right to your email inbox.

Non-Targeted vs. Targeted Advertising

Non-Targeted Ads

It can generally be agreed upon that all ads are annoying. But not all ads threaten your privacy in the same way. Non-targeted ads are ones in which the advertisers places their ad on a website and hope the high-volume of visitors to that site gets the ad noticed. Display ads are typically non-targeted.

Targeted Ads

Targeted ads are ones where an advertiser wants their ad to be seen by audience who meets specific criteria. For example, a publishing company marketing their new romance novel might want to advertise it specifically to women who enjoy romance novels and movies. Where do they get this information about you? Unfortunately, it can come from anywhere and everywhere.

Most websites use something called “cookies.” Cookies are small bits of code that help websites function better. For example, cookies remember your username and password so you don’t have to log into a website every time. They also remember things like your language preferences, so you can read the website in English, French, German, or whatever your language of choice may be.

However, there are other cookies used by websites designed specifically to collect information about your online activity, which they tie back to your IP address to help identify you in the future. If you look up the book “Twilight,” on Amazon, the cookies will analyze the book and file you into different categories of note. For example, it may assume you are a woman, interested in books in general, and are more specifically interested in paranormal romance.

The websites that use these cookies may then sell them to advertisers, who use that information to target you. The next time you’re online, you may see an ad for the Twilight box set from Amazon, or an ad from Barnes and Noble recommending a whole list of paranormal romance books you might like.

You may also find ads for places you’ve recently been to, or for things in your city. Often, your personal devices (like a smartphone) will collect your location data and sell it to advertisers. You can help prevent this by turning location services off when not in use.

Why is Digital Advertising Dangerous?

Aside from violating your privacy by collecting your data (typically) without your consent, targeted ads can pose greater danger to you.

  • Hackers. Cookies collect frightening amounts of information about people, to the point where the profiles they build can identify you by name and location. If the databases where your information is stored end up hacked, the criminals behind the attack could use the information to steal your identity.
  • Sensitive information. Cookies are so good at collecting your information that they may reveal sensitive details about your life to other people before you can. In 2012, a story was widely publicized in which Target sent a high school student a flier for baby products. Her father, irate that his teenaged daughter received such a thing in the mail, made a complaint. As it turned out, his daughter was indeed pregnant and Target had sent her the flier based on her internet search history. The same story can play out in other ways. LGBTQ+ folks may be outed in dangerous situations as a result of search histories, and people with illnesses may have their illness discovered by family members and friends before they’re ready to tell them.
  • Misinformation. There aren’t many regulations when it comes to what people can advertise. As a result, targeted ads have become a powerful weapon to disseminate misinformation when it comes to things like politics and health information.

How Do Ad Blockers Help?

Ad blockers, as the name suggests, prevent advertisements from displaying on websites. They can be useful for a variety of reasons.

  • Safer browsing
  • No tracking
  • Faster loading
  • Longer data use
  • Decluttered browsing

Safer Browsing

Many websites generate revenue by selling advertising space on their site. However, they don’t always vet the people to whom they’re selling that space. Sometimes, this paves the way for attackers to install malicious content in their ads. When clicked, even accidentally, this leaves you vulnerable to viruses and malware that can wreak havoc on your devices. If you use an ad blocker, you may eliminate the risk altogether.

No Tracking

Online ads don’t just push products at you. Some of them can actually track you and your travels through the internet. This allows them to collect information about you and your browsing habits, then sell that data to third party websites or use it to even more aggressively market to you. This, for obvious reasons, is massively dangerous to online privacy and safety. Many ad blockers promise to prevent this tracking from happening in the first place.

Faster Loading

Every time you open up a website, it has to load text, images, videos, and other bits of code. By packing a website with ads, those ads also have to load which slows down the entire process. Using an ad blocker removes those elements from the site, meaning there’s less to load, which in turn will make the process of displaying the content you wish to see faster.

Use an Ad Blocker to Stretch Your Data Longer

Some estimates claim that ads actually use up half of a mobile user’s data, for those who tend to browse outside of the house. That can add up fast, leading to either running out of data or needing to spend extra money for more. By using an ad blocker, you prevent those ads from loading and gobbling up your data and money.

Decluttered Browsing

Finally, if you use an ad blocker, you simply don’t have to suffer through annoying ads. Those banners? Gone. The pop ups? Gone. The frighteningly loud sound effects? Gone. Your browsing experience will be cleaner, smoother, and less distracting to the eye.

No one wants the constant distraction of digital ads. And, no one wants their privacy violated just for corporations to better shill their products. Ad blockers are an excellent tool to increase your online privacy and safety, while kicking ads to the curb.

Posted by Rhiannon

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