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…