While public debate about online tracking and Microsoft’s Do Not Track continues, tracking of web users’ behavior is growing at a startling pace. The Berkeley Center for Law and Technology‘s Fall 2012 Web Privacy Census, based on our web crawling and analysis technology that powers our DoNotTrackPlus tool, determined that the use of third-party tracking cookies on the 100 most popular websites increased by 11 percent from May to October 2012. We think that people have the right to know what’s trying to follow them around online, and showing how widespread tracking has become is an important part of consumers’ making educated decisions about their views about online privacy and advertising.
If present trends continue, the amount of online tracking will double in about two and a half years. In addition, tracking technology is evolving as advertisers move away from Flash cookies, which iOS devices do not support, to HTML5 local storage. The study, headed up by Berkeley Center for Law and Technology director Chris Hoofnagle, concludes that online tracking is growing in both pervasiveness and sophistication. It’s a never-ending arms race where advertisers will do whatever they can for the last pixel of your data, while privacy companies build technology that lets consumers fight it. Meanwhile, legislators continue to debate a Do Not Track law that would make advertisers have to follow your requests for privacy.
To supplement the census data, we ran another analysis of the top 5,000 websites in the US to name the worst offenders: the sites with the most trackers. Surprisingly, news and political sites have far more trackers than porn sites: the worst offender in the “news” category, SFGate.com, had 46 trackers, while the worst offender in the porn category, viceland.com, only had 9. But there’s some good news, too: some of the top websites don’t use any trackers, like Wikipedia and Craigslist.
We also found that 26.3% of what your browser does when you load a website is respond to requests for your personal information. To put that in perspective, it means that only 73.3% of the time is your browser doing things you want it to do, like displaying videos, articles, and pictures. Google makes up 20.28% of all the tracking on the web, while Facebook is 18.84%. Less well-known trackers comprise the remaining 61%.
You can read the full Web Privacy Census on the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s website and see the infographic of our supplemental research here (or click the image below to see the full infographic). We’ll be reporting on the state of online tracking regularly, so stay tuned for more updates!