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Ad tracking: Is anything being done?

Robert L. Mitchell | April 3, 2014
With online tracking on the rise and Do Not Track efforts moving ahead slowly, users and browser vendors have been taking matters into their own hands.

That has left consumers who don't want to be tracked with a more drastic option: Turn on the third-party cookie blocking setting in the browser and install special browser add-on software that prevents tracking scripts from running (because not all tracking is cookie-based).

It's not a complete solution, however. Anti-tracking tools defend against tracking only by third-party advertising networks that deliver ads through the content publisher's website -- although the tools do block all third-party requests, whether from ad networks, social media or analytics companies. The tools don't prevent any tracking by a "first party" -- the publisher of the site or any affiliated advertising networks it owns.

In addition, most anti-tracking tools won't work on mobile devices (although one, Disconnect Kids, claims to work on iPhones). Because mobile devices don't use cookies, the operating systems are locked down and mobile apps are isolated from each other, it's difficult to create a mobile app that globally blocks the tracking of your browsing and app activity, says Casey Oppenheim, co-CEO at Disconnect, maker of Disconnect Kids and the Disconnect anti-tracking browser add-on.

Replacing the cookie
While cookies assign a unique identifier to a user's browser, they can't easily be used to track the user's activity across different devices or even across different browsers running on the same computer. New techniques, such as those recently disclosed by Facebook, Google and Microsoft, will assign a unique identifier to each type of device the user has and link those together to track activity across all of the devices the person uses. These new tracking mechanisms, if they catch on, could be used across each vendor's ecosystem — and beyond.

Other advertising networks have also been working with statistical identification methods — browser and device "fingerprinting" techniques — that don't require the presence of a cookie file.

Meanwhile, as user awareness has increased, so has the level of discomfort with the idea of having all of one's online browsing activity recorded — particularly by third-party advertising networks that consumers don't know and with whom they have no relationship.

And as the number of tracking scripts has increased, so has the bandwidth consumed when the user attempts to load the page. "Up to 26% of bandwidth goes to loading trackers," says Sarah Downey, privacy advisor at Abine, the distributor of a free anti-tracking add-on program called DoNotTrackMe. According to Downey, the percentage comes from a 2012 Web crawling exercise conducted by Abine.

"As the industry moves toward stealthier methods of tracking [such as device and browser fingerprinting], the only way we can reliably prevent tracking is to block entire requests," says Brian Kennish, co-CEO of Disconnect. Tools like Disconnect take the draconian step of blocking requests to third-party ad networks to deliver an ad when the user visits the site -- which means even a non-targeted ad can't be delivered to the user.


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