Keeping tabs on those keeping tabs on us online

A new study of more than 1 million websites found that news sites that rely heavily on online advertising are sprinkling the most digital markers on their visitors.

Since the advent of the Web, digital advertisers have been in a cat-and-mouse game with users over tracking their movements, even deliberately circumventing privacy settings.

This study, purportedly the largest and most detailed measurement of online tracking to date, offers more detail of which sites are most aggressively targeting users and new methods of tracking users.

When it comes to following visitors around the Web, news, arts and sports sites lead the pack, even more than pornography sites, the Princeton researchers found.

Sites such as non-profits and universities track visitors much less. The researchers speculate why news sites are tracking more:

Since many of these sites provide articles for free, and lack an external funding source, they are pressured to monetize page views with significantly more advertising.

The top five most common tracking tools are owned by Google, such as Google Analytics and Doubleclick, MIT Technology Review points out.

Visitors who don’t want to be tracked have two main methods for throwing off their digital scent, the cookie-blocker in one’s browser and privacy extensions. But do they work?

The researchers found that Firefox’s blocking was effective.  Add-on extension Ghostery was also effective at limiting cookies.

What’s trickier are new techniques used by small companies that work on how browsers process audio. Dubbed “fingerprinting,” the tracker attaches an audio signal that then follows a device around the Web.

Since Google and Facebook control most of the common trackers, there may be hope of creating standards and controls in this space.

One of the researchers, Arvind Narayanan, told the MIT Technology Review:

Only a small number of companies have trackers that are really prevalent. This suggests that external oversight and public pressure can lead to positive change.

Photo: The Google logo. (AP/Mark Lennihan)


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  • > The researchers found that Firefox’s blocking was effective. Add-on extension Ghostery was also effective at limiting cookies.

    thanks for the recommendation.
    # installed