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Private I: Firefox and others deal with unwanted trackers, whether ads or malicious

Glenn Fleishman | July 10, 2015
You'd think checking a box labeled Do Not Track would indicate a strong preference for, you know: not being tracked. And yet that is not the case. Those who sell slots to advertisers or gather demographic and other personal data to associate with individuals and improve targeting have a desperate interest in following our every move online.

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You'd think checking a box labeled Do Not Track would indicate a strong preference for, you know: not being tracked. And yet that is not the case. Those who sell slots to advertisers or gather demographic and other personal data to associate with individuals and improve targeting have a desperate interest in following our every move online.

The more closely advertising is targeted to our needs, the more likely we are to not just to pay attention (worth a little), click (worth something), or follow through with buying or signing up (worth a lot). Those who sell advertising slots, and the advertisers who buy them, would prefer to have the best, unmediated access to you.

The Do Not Track preference was first envisioned in 2009 as a way for web users to state affirmatively that they didn't want to be tracked. The idea was that inserting a simple header--a bit of metadata sent from a browser to a server--would be a positive signal. The trick was convincing the browser makers and advertising industries to support it.

All the browser makers did, but the industry didn't. There were issues about whether the setting would be "no choice" along with yes and no, or default to either yes or no. As of now, there's essentially no mandate or requirement, whether among trade groups or governments, to honor the setting.

That's why Firefox's Tracking Protection caught my eye. A feature inserted into Firefox, it had the potential to offer a "Hey, Really, Do Not Track" option that would be largely effective. That fact that it's hidden seems to indicate that it's already controversial. No worries, though: even if it disappears or you don't use Firefox, you have alternatives via Ghostery and other tools, as I'll explain.

How we're tracked

Advertising, analytics, social media, and other tracking networks use JavaScript, tiny images, and other embedded methods to install tracking IDs on your browser when you visit sites that incorporate their signals. This might be a site that uses Google Analytics, Doubleclick, GeoTrust, or dozens of others--or even dozens on one site.

Some networks go beyond using simple browser cookies, which are easy to block or delete, and employ "respawnable" evercookies. These components use various hidey-holes in offline storage and other features in HTML5, Flash, and other systems to cache an ID so that when a cookie is deleted, on the next visit to a site with the network's scripts in use, the browser cookie is re-created. A different category, supercookies, involve a user's ISP or cellular provider tagging their sessions uniquely.

 

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