Even after you set your browser to delete existing cookies and ban new ones, download super-cookies and use the tools created by pro-privacy programmers, there's one data-gathering technique that you simply cannot avoid. Your computer has hundreds of settings that control things like the main interface language (English, Korean, etc.), sound and screen resolution settings, and the color schemes people set for their Microsoft Word documents.How to avoid online tracking. (Hint: you can't.)
As you scroll the Internet, most websites automatically take snapshots of your settings. That information, combined with data on where you connect to the internet, can be used to track your movements around the web and build a profile about each visitor. To see how effective this is at tracing individual users, I ran a test designed by Eckerseley called Panopticlick on my own computer. I've only had this computer for about a month, so I haven't even taken the time to open my control panel and customize the settings for the track pad, keyboard, screen, etc. (The program doesn't search for computers or beacons on your computer.)
Nevertheless, Panopticlick found 20 bits of identifying information on my Mac. Using those bits, it could tell that I was a unique user and not one of the 1.3 million people who ran the test before me.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.