To help us provide you with free impartial advice, we may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site. Learn more

How to use secret privacy settings on Facebook and Google

Adverts on the Million Dollar Homepage

Facebook, Google, Microsoft and hundreds of other companies track you online and sell your data to advertisers. We explain how to stop them

The internet is built on a skewed economy where people refuse to pay and willingly let companies rifle through their personal data with impunity. That’s how Google and Facebook have become two of the most powerful companies in the world and how countless advertising agencies you’ve never heard of engage in shady trades for our data. Every search you make, every social networking profile you create and every website you visit contributes to this enormous ball of data. And to what ends? So you can see a poorly targeted advert for a lawnmower. 

There have always been privacy concerns around Facebook and its launch of its Atlas advertising software has raised further alarms. Atlas will use information from your Facebook profile to create advertising profiles, something that few people will realise Facebook is doing. It is the latest in a procession of measures by the company to erode our privacy for profit.

Making profit from websites and the internet as a whole is another discussion. If you’re uncomfortable with companies trading in your personal data to hurl advertising at you then here’s how to stop it.

Use Adblock Plus Easy Privacy

You’ve probably heard of Adblock Plus and might even have it installed. The browser extension for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer blocks all web adverts. You can also change settings in Adblock Plus to let adverts display on sites you visit regularly so you don’t starve them of cash. A little-known setting of Adblock Plus also helps protect your privacy by blocking online trackers. With Adblock Plus installed select Options and then FILTER LISTS. Under Other Filter Lists tick ‘Antisocial filter list’ and ‘EasyPrivacy (privacy protection)’. The lists will take a couple of minutes to download. AdBlock Plus has a similar feature to block social media buttons.

Block behavioural advertising on all websites

Behavioural advertising is marketing speak for adverts that try and work out who you are so they can target your interests. Like when you search online for a new pair of shoes only to be stalked around the internet by an endless barrage of shoe adverts. That’s behavioural advertising. You could argue this is better than irrelevant advertising that isn’t of interest to you or that being tracked all over the internet is creepy and invasive.

You can turn behavioural advertising off. Your Online Choices, a privacy website run by the EU, has a great tool for detecting and removing tracking cookies left on your computer.  A scan will start automatically in your browser to sniff out all the cookies (likely to be 50 or more) and once this is done you can chose to ‘Turn off all companies’ if you want to stop them tracking you. The scan might not work first time so click ‘Retry all failed’ to give it another go.

Your Online Choice

Ironically your new tracking preferences are stored as a cookie, which is easily deleted by accident. Stop this happening by downloading the browser extension for Chrome or Firefox. Once installed the extension will make sure you never delete your behavioural advertising settings.

Do the same thing on the US equivalent to make sure you catch all the tracking cookies. About Ads should weedle out one or two advertising trackers that Your Online Choices missed. Once again you will also need to install an extension to make sure you don’t delete your settings. The Protect My Choices extension is available for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Block targeted advertising on Android and iOS

You probably spend more time browsing the web on your phone or tablet than you do your laptop or work computer. You can disable ‘interest-based’ advertising on Android by turning off a hidden setting. Tap Settings and under Accounts select Google, Ads and un-tick ‘Opt out of interest-based ads’. Now tap ‘Reset advertising ID’. To do the same in iOS go to Settings, Privacy, Advertising and turn on the Limit Ad Tracking option. You should also tap Reset Advertising Identifier. In iOS 6 go to Settings, General, About, Advertising and in iOS 4 or 5 go to on your device.

You can also turn off location-based ads on iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Go to Settings, Privacy, Location Services, System Services and turn off Location-Based iAds. In iOS 4 or 5 tap Settings, Privacy and Location Services.

Lock down your Facebook and Twitter profiles

Privacy settings on Facebook and Twitter are designed to confuse people. The myriad options will put most people off but there is an easy way to take control of your social network profiles. AVG Privacy Fix, which works with Facebook, Twitter, Google and LinkedIn, scans your profiles and helps you change confusing settings. Privacy Fix is a free extension for Chrome and Firefox, with apps also available for Android and iOS. Once installed you will need to connect it to your social network accounts so it can scan for potential privacy holes. Using AVG Privacy Fix is easy as it guides explains how to change each setting and what the technical blurb means.

As well as handling social networks there are also options in Privacy Fix to block over 1,200 ad trackers and social widgets used by the likes of Facebook to follow you around the web. Using these tools as well as the methods explained above should make sure you’re safe from almost all ad trackers.

AVG Privacy Fix

Stop Google profiling you

Google tries to work out who you are based on all the information you unwittingly hand to it. You can find out who Google thinks you are by checking out your advertising profile. If you’d rather Google didn’t guess you’re an old man interested in Celebrities & Entertainment News then you can change settings to stop it. Go to Google’s Ads Settings page and under ‘Ads on Google’ click ‘Opt out’ and then ‘Opt out’ again. Do the same for all Google ads by clicking ‘Opt out’ under ‘Google Ads Across the Web’. You’ll still see ads from Google (unless you install an adblocker) but they will not be based on information collected about you.

Stop Microsoft profiling you

Much as it would have you believe otherwise Microsoft also collects huge amounts of data about its users and then targets them with adverts. As with Google you can make it stop. The Microsoft Data Dashboard lets you view and edit the information Microsoft uses to target adverts. How much Microsoft knows about you will vary depending on how much you use Microsoft products and services. Delete all the information that you don’t want Microsoft to store. At the top select MY CHOICES and click the green tick next to ‘Information use is allowed by the following enabled services’ to disable targeted advertising based on your Microsoft profile.

Microsoft data

Stop Facebook stalking you across the web

Facebook has an irritating habit of bundling features together, making it impossible to turn one off without losing the other. That’s especially had news when it comes to your privacy. Many websites now use Facebook’s social plugin, letting you comment on and like articles from outside of the social network. Facebook calls this ‘instant personalisation’. As well as letting you frantically click like and call people idiots on BuzzFeed articles, instant personalisation also helps Facebook keep an eye on the websites you visit. This information is then bundled together, anonymised and sold to advertisers.

The option to turn it off is hidden in with Facebook Apps, Websites and Plugins. To turn one off you’ll have to kill them all. Go to Facebook, Settings, Apps and click Edit under ‘Apps, Websites and Plugins’ and then select Disable Platform. Do the same for Instant Personalisation and Apps Others Use.

Read more