Editorial: Tracking your online ‘followers’

By The Herald Editorial Board

It bears repeating, so we will: Wherever you go online, you are being tracked. This isn’t new, but the ubiquity of the tracking has hit new heights. Along with those ads that follow you around. A study that looked at web tracking over the last 20 years found that at least 75 percent of the world’s 500 most popular websites contain web trackers, up from fewer than 5 percent in 1998, USA Today reported.

“The number of trackers have increased, the ability of the top trackers to track you across sites has increased and the complexity of the trackers has increased,” said Adam Lerner, a security and privacy researcher at the University of Washington and one of the study designers.

Technology experts emphasize that it is not just individual companies that track you, but “third-party” trackers, which sell your information to other companies.

“It’s important to remember that those four brokers are then selling that data to others, so it’s much broader,” said Ali Lange, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington D.C.

Using “cookies” and other technologies, the third party trackers are able to build “browsing profiles” of users that is quite specific, USA Today reported. It will compile what sites a user visits, determine where they live, what ads they’ve looked at, and where they’ve purchased something, among other things.

They don’t really need your name when they can drill down to your interests without it, and send ads to follow you around. Some sites, however, like the Humane Society, will send mail to your home after you visit its website; so some sites are definitely getting your name, which really wouldn’t be hard to do, given all the ways one is followed online.

“Obviously they have legitimate purposes, but they also have privacy implications,” said Franziska Roesner, professor of computer science at UW and an author on the paper, which was presented last week at a computer conference in Austin, Texas.

Half of the top 500 websites they looked at contained at least four of the third-party trackers, the researchers found. The average top website has an average of at least four third-party trackers looking at user activity, Science Daily reported. The UW research team stresses that these numbers are likely underestimates, since not all websites are fully archived.

Meanwhile, a Princeton study found that in addition to all the cookies and beacons and digital fingerprints we now leave behind us, there’s another one loudly announcing your presence — but you can’t hear it. (The sound comes from the electrons that make up your computer.) It’s called an audio fingerprint, and it’s a “niche” tracking tactic, Consumerist reports, so it’s not widespread. On the other hand, if it’s being used, most people wouldn’t know a thing about it.

And on and on it goes. Once you’re savvy to one tracking trick, another pops up. Perhaps one day, an individual’s online rights will at least be equal to those forever trying to sell you something.

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