Online privacy leaks worsen; “Do not track” gains steam

October 11, 2011

People use computers at an Internet cafe in Changzhi, north China's Shanxi province June 20, 2007. REUTERS/StringerAre you being tracked right now? If you thought you were just browsing aimlessly, doing a little shopping or checking sports scores without identifying yourself, you could be mistaken about your level of privacy.

A new study from a Stanford University researcher has found that a lot of  the little bits and pieces of supposedly anonymous data being deposited by your web browser are actually being gathered and reassembled by dozens of companies and sold. And stopping that from happening takes more than a little bit of effort, helped by a growing movement for “do not track” legislation.

More companies know more about you than previously thought and stopping them from secretly building profiles of you is a lot harder than just pressing a button, researcher Jonathan Mayer says.

He adds:

“Click the local Home Depot ad and your email address gets handed to a dozen companies monitoring you. Your web browsing, past, present, and future, is now associated with your identity… Keep tabs on your favorite teams with Bleacher Report and you pass your full name to a dozen again. This isn’t a 1984-esque scaremongering hypothetical. This is what’s happening today.”

Mayer, of Stanford’s Computer Security Laboratory, says more than half of the sites surveyed share your information with other sites. As an example, he notes that  even when you’re on a typical commercial news site there will be multiple companies collecting information as a matter of course: including the site itself, a video delivery service, advertising networks and social networks.

Previously, privacy advocates suggested that opting out of so-called behavioral advertising was a means of avoiding having your online usage patterns tracked. But Mayer says that stopping targeted advertising doesn’t stop the data collection.

Consumers Union regulatory counsel Ioana Rusu says companies can not only find out who you are and where you’ve been, but also alter offers that you see based on nothing other than the websites you’ve visited — something that can paint a grossly distorted picture of someone. She cited the example of a credit card company that presented different offers to users based on their online profile.

“These decisions are not made based on actual credit reports, but on the users’ browsing patterns,” she says.

Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, speaking at the same privacy forum, says the potential impact to consumer privacy with today’s technology goes far beyond targeting you for advertising. “Your tracked information doesn’t have to stop there; it could be traded throughout an invisible lattice of companies, snowballing into an exhaustive profile of you (that is) available to those making critical decisions about your career, finances, health, and reputation.”

What are supposed to do?

If you’re ok with companies assembling profiles of you based on your web browsing habits, you needn’t do a thing. But if you want to keep your email address and name and what you do online as a personal experience, you’ll have to take a series of steps to try to close that window.

Mayer says you could take the most extreme option — untenable to most of us — simply stop going on the web. If you want to stay online, he first suggests is to set your browser’s privacy settings  to say you don’t want to be tracked. That option, he says, is available through Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, but not Google Chrome.

A “Do Not Track” site Mayer is affiliated with walks you through the steps you need to take stop tracking.

You can also go through the manual steps of stopped the behavioral advertising by choosing to opt-out through the Network Advertising Initiative as well as through the Digital Advertising Alliance.

The FTC has backed the creation of a do not track law that would limit what information could be collected about you online. For now, it’s up to consumers to protect themselves. Mayer says only an estimated 5 percent of Firefox users have shut off tracking.

Is that because they don’t know how to do this, or because they don’t really mind being tracked? That’s a subject for another study.

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“Are you being tracked right now?”

If I’m being tracked right now, it’s because you made me sign in with a Twitter account, and submit to your cookies. This Reuters site alone has eleven different tracking cookies recording me right now, so maybe lead by example and cut it out.

Posted by handlex3 | Report as abusive