Most ad blockers—and there are so, so many of them now—operate roughly the same way, comparing the scripts they encounter on a given site to their whitelist and block list letting the former run and stopping the others. This means they largely share the same drawback, as well; they can’t block what they’ve never seen before. With its latest release, popular ad blocker Ghostery attempts to solve that common dilemma, with a fashionable solution: artificial intelligence.
With Ghostery 8, available Wednesday as an extension for all the major browsers, the popular ad-blocker introduces not only AI-powered anti-tracking technology, but also a new “Smart Mode” that adjusts settings for you, rather than expecting novices to know which trackers to toggle. In doing so, the Edward Snowden-endorsed service has become both more accessible to the average user, and better able to preemptively protect them.
The power-up comes at an auspicious time. A newly released Ghostery study shows that over 15 percent of pages loaded online have 10 more more trackers working in the background. And a significant amount of the traffic that’s free of third-party trackers belongs to Google and Facebook, which hardly need them to know what you’re doing online.
It also, though, comes at a time when Ghostery’s core function—keeping trackers from following you around the internet—is increasingly baked into browsers already. Firefox has blocked tracking in private browsing since 2015. Apple brought tracker-blocking to Safari this year, also using machine learning to stay ahead of its quarry. And Google will block certain types of annoying ads in Chrome by default next year.
What, in that context, can an extension provide that browser-native solutions cannot? In Ghostery’s case, a pretty good amount.
It’s important to note that the anti-tracking tech that Ghostery 8 introduces isn’t strictly new; it’s what privacy-focused browser Cliqz already uses uses to ward off tracking, and it pushes the practice past the block lists of yore. Cliqz acquired the Ghostery extension and related apps in February. The AI’s function is not just to identify trackers, but to see what type of information they’re tracking.
“They actually use a heuristic, AI approach to determine if those trackers are sending unsafe data,” says Jeremy Tillman, Ghostery’s head of product management.
In this context, “unsafe” means anything that’s personally identifiable, that could be used to build a profile of a specific user. Once it makes that determination, Ghostery will overwrite any of those sensitive data points with random information before it gets to a third party. That also means that certain ad elements can remain unblocked without jeopardizing your privacy, a more important feature than you might think.
“There’s a shortlist of trackers that we know are pretty critical to website performance, and we can selectively say that these, when they’re blocked, a web site’s not going to render properly,” says Tillman.
Sniping page elements before confirming that they’re ad trackers has potential downsides; a false positive, for instance, could result in usability being borked. But Tillman says that there, too, algorithms can help. If Ghostery detects that users start refreshing a page over and over, for instance, something’s probably broken, and an adjustment can be made.
The Cliqz acquisition has an ancillary benefit for Ghostery users as well, in the form of, eventually, a new business model. Whereas Ghostery and its previous parent company, Evidon, have historically sold its (repackaged, anonymized) data back to the ad industry and other interested parties, in the future it hopes to focus instead on establishing a premium tier of service as its main revenue driver.
“There’s a really big chunk of Ghostery users who use it less for the detection and blocking and more for the insights they get,” says Tillman. “These are educators, professionals, who use it in their work to analyze websites and analyze the technology on them.”
Currently, Ghostery blocks trackers based on a library it maintains of over 2600 of them. You can decide to block as many or as few as you want, or to whitelist a given page, or to pause blocking, or to restrict certain sites.
That granularity has a lot of appeal for power users, but can be daunting for novices, or even experts who don’t want to spend the better part of an afternoon toggling trackers. Historically, Ghostery has blocked nothing by default, which has meant that you’re on your own to decide which trackers you want to spike and which stay operational. Simply blocking everything by default sounds like a solution, but doing so can break web sites in fundamental ways; videos won’t play, actually desirable elements won’t load, you name it.
Ghostery 8 takes more care than previous versions to walk users through those steps. When you install it, you’re given a choice between a one-click start, or walking through a custom setup based on how much you’d like to block.
The one-click set up, which fires up Ghostery with Smart Mode, will make the most sense for the most people; it automatically makes those decisions for you, adjusting its blockers to maximize both privacy and page load times.
“It enforces a speed requirement,” says Tillman of the smart-blocking mode. “A website that is slow, we’re going to be blocking the things that would slow it down.”
That makes Ghostery’s Smart Mode in some ways even more appealing than the AI upgrade. The stripped-down interface highlights key information more cleanly, without first suggesting you wade into the minutia. It turns on smart-tracking by default. And it does its best to cap page-load speeds at five seconds.
“It’s much more personal,” says Tillman. “Just set it and forget it and let it do its thing.”
Even in Smart Mode, you can see which trackers Ghostery has shut off and which it left running, and can fine-tune as you see fit.
‘A website that is slow, we’re going to be blocking the things that would slow it down.’
Jeremy Tillman, Ghostery
I’ve been able to spend a little time with Ghostery 8 in beta, and it does seem adept at keeping out intrusive elements without dinging functionality. It speeds pages up noticeably, and combined with the smart anti-tracking steps, keeps them humming along as intended. And I’ll be the first to admit that my previous Ghostery set-up was based on my best guesses of what trackers I should leave behind and which impacted my browsing. The one-click set-up was a relief on a few levels.
It’s also that degree of easy sophistication that Tillman argues will help ensure Ghostery’s relevance even after blocking trackers becomes table stakes for the biggest browsers.
“The Google ad blocker, there’s speculation that it’ll be somewhat selective. We don’t have that same sort of bias against what we choose to block and unblock. We don’t have a vested interest,” says Tillman. “Likewise, Safari anti-tracking is impressive, but doesn’t take very stringent steps toward aggressive user privacy.”
As for Firefox, its parent, Mozilla, has a stake in Cliqz, which again, owns Ghostery, so in some ways it’s all in the family.
There’s a larger debate around ad blockers, of course, and their impact on various industries, like media, that largely rely on advertising to survive. It’s also true, though, that many ads remain obtrusive and, in some cases, vehicles for malware and other digital ills. Hidden online trackers still permeate the web more than most people would ever realize.
Having a tool to remedy that on sites you don’t trust—one that also makes it easy to white list the sites that you do, helping them keep the lights on in the process—seems like as good a balance as one can expect. At the very least, it’s the one that exists. Adding both sophistication and ease of use to that process, as Ghostery 8 does, can only help.