We collaborated with UC Berkeley on a new report that shows that online tracking is everywhere. It’s not just on sketchy websites you’ve never heard of. It’s on all of the 100 most popular websites in one form or another, sites that people know and trust.
What is online tracking, anyway?
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “online tracking,” here’s a quick primer. Every time you browse the web, hundreds of advertising companies are watching everything you do: what you click and buy, the things you “Like” on Facebook, the stories you read, your IP address, & more.
Based on your online activities, advertisers create profiles of unprecedented detail that reveal personal aspects of your life, like your religious and political beliefs, sexual orientation, creditworthiness, medical status, and reading habits. It’s like you have a second Facebook profile, only this one’s way more detailed and you can’t change anything in it. You can’t even access it.
One of the many ways that this second profile is used is to target you with personalized ads based on what the advertisers think you’ll respond to. Your digital data trail is increasingly being used for more harmful things, like hiring processes, insurance rates, credit limits, and price discrimination (like Orbitz charging Mac users more for hotels than PC users).
Now that you know what tracking is, let’s get back to the census. We developed an internal system for our tracker-blocking tool, DoNotTrackMe, that crawls the web detecting tracking code and analyzes tracking types, trends, and changes over time, including techniques that advertisers use to avoid detection. We teamed with Berkeley and crawled the top 100, 1k, and 25k websites, analyzing the types and quantities of tracking used on each site.
The takeaways: first, there’s an alarming increase in the volume of tracking on the most popular websites. They’re far more aggressive in their desire to monetize consumer data. Second, tracking technology follows web technology. We’re seeing advertisers abandoning things like Flash that have gotten a bad rap and moving to new techniques like HTML5 local storage that no one’s gotten in trouble for using yet. Third, the Internet is so saturated with tracking that you simply cannot avoid it if you aren’t using a privacy tool like DoNotTrackPlus.
Advertisers are relentlessly circumventing the only ways consumers know how to protect their privacy. It’s an arms race: on 1 side, ad companies invest billions to build ever-changing tracking techniques that neither consumers nor browsers can keep up with. On the other side, we teamed with the researchers at Berkley to hold them accountable. Let’s be clear: advertisers will do anything to get a piece of data about you, down to the last pixel.
Why should you care about all this tracking?
This isn’t about targeted advertising. This is about the collection and use of your personal information in ways you can’t even imagine. Targeted advertising is the strawman that the ad industry puts up to hide the real problem. Your personal information is where the money is, not ads. Even if you think you have nothing to hide (and no one believes that), are you really comfortable with the ad industry knowing this much about you, especially when you don’t know how they’re using it? Let us know in the comments below.