Ghostery is an open source browser extension that blocks ads, trackers, and a variety of other third-party content.
Ghostery does what it says on the tin: it blocks ads and trackers, and it does it well. With some configuration, mostly around opting out of injected default services, Ghostery might even be great — but ideologically, I have a hard time with some of the opinions the software, and its’ parent company share.
Ghostery is one of the most popular anti-tracking and ad-blocking browser extensions available today. Initially developed by David Cancel, the extension has changed hands three times and incurred the ire of privacy advocates for certain practices associated with its’ parent companies.
These things aside, let’s jump in and take a look at the actual product and how it works.
Upon the first installation, you’re brought to a settings tab, where you can configure the properties of the extension and customize the additional features.
Note that this initial settings tab is simplified and you’ll find more in-depth abilities within the browser extension itself.
Ghostery can block several types of trackers:
Next, you can trust or restrict sites individually. Trusting a site allows all trackers to proceed as if you did not have Ghostery installed. Restricting blocks all trackers.
Ghostery includes a floating purple box, which displays in the corner of your web browser.
If you click on it once, you’ll get a display with additional information:
Click it again, and it expands to show the individual trackers and their status:
By default, it only shows for the first 15 seconds after a webpage load. You can configure this, or remove it entirely, which I did, as the Detailed View in the extension itself provides the same information, less obtrusively.
Ghostery gives you the option to create an account, which can be used for syncing your settings between browsers and devices. I’m always wary of privacy-centric services that request personal information, but it’s an optional step, and the only required fields are email and password.
When you first install Ghostery, the default settings are activated. This includes two features: the Human Web and Ghostery Rewards.
I recommend immediately heading to the Customize Setup tab and turning these options off.
The Human Web is a data service run by the parent company of Ghostery, Cliqz GmbH. The data collected is protected and decoupled from individual users through the use of a proxy network and algorithmic filters. Cliqz maintains that the data collected is entirely anonymous and cannot be attributed back to users who share data with the service.
The FAQs state that the information that Ghostery collects for the Human Web is:
The Human Web is open source and can be reviewed by visiting the GitHub Repo.
The Ghostery Rewards feature is essentially advertising that is included with the Ghostery extension. The promotional offers are unlocked through user behaviors, such as search queries, viewed content, or social signals.
Cliqz sister company, MyOfferz operates the service. Cliqz maintains that the service provides a high level of anonymity and privacy, as the advertisements and the rules that control their display are included directly within the installation of the Ghostery extension itself.
Ghostery has an upgraded version, accessible through a monthly subscription. At the time of writing, the monthly price was $2.
Paying for Ghostery Plus unlocks new themes, priority support, and historical blocking statistics.
The perks do not enhance the core service at all. The point of subscribing isn’t the perks — it’s to support the parent company.
Ghostery has broad platform support and is available on most major browsers: Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Edge, Opera, and Safari. The extension also has support for both iOS and Android mobile devices.
The thing about Ghostery is and has always been its parent organization. This is true for many privacy extensions — it’s challenging to build a business on helping people become invisible and non-marketable. In Ghostery’s case, the first organization, Evidon, Inc, purportedly licensed data to advertisers, and the latest owner, Cliqz GmbH, uses that same data (or similar) to improve its other products, namely, its privacy-focused web browser, Cliqz.
To their credit, Cliqz seems to be doing a lot of the right things. The product is entirely open source, and anyone can review the source code, but the underlying services and some of the default settings give me pause when thinking about recommending the use of the extension to novice users.