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Resisting Online Tracking: New Features & Tools

Recently, Mozilla, Google and Microsoft announced new tools and features to meet their users’ online privacy needs, as well as regulations regarding the practice of online tracking. This article takes a look at Mozilla’s Firefox do-not-track header, Google’s Chrome online tracking tool and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Tracking Protection feature.

What is online tracking?

Online tracking is an advertising method which develops tailored ads based on information that has been gathered about the consumer. Tracking allows advertisers to accurately match consumers to products, thus increasing the effectiveness of the ads. This means that companies to charge a premium for such precisely-targeted ads. According to EMarketer Inc., a New York-based research company, the US market for targeted advertising may grow 21% in 2011, to $1.35 billion, from $1.12 billion in 2010.

In December 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a report endorsing “Do Not Track” initiatives that would offer users a way to opt out of personalized advertising. While advertising companies that are part of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) allow users to opt out of online tracking, once customers clear browser cookies, any settings that have been customized are lost.

Firefox: Do-Not-Track Header

In January 2011, Mozilla proposed a Do-Not-Track feature in Firefox which allows users to inform websites that they would like to opt-out of third party tracking. This is done through the transmission of a Do-Not-Track HTTP header whenever user data is requested from the web. The header can be enabled or disabled when the user wishes, supposedly providing granular control over which websites are allowed to collect data. While any browser can be configured to send a Do-Not-Track header, every website must be modified in order to accept it.

Alex Fowler, Mozilla’s technology and privacy officer commented that the challenge of the Do-Not-Track header “is that it requires both browsers and sites to implement it to be fully effective. Mozilla recognizes the chicken and egg problem and we are taking the step of proposing that this feature be considered for upcoming releases of Firefox.”

Chrome: Online Tracking Tool

On January 24, 2011, Google announced the release of a new tool known as Keep My Opt-Outs, which allows users to opt out of online tracking. The Keep My Opt-Outs browser extension applies to all companies and online ad networks which offer opt-outs as a result of industry self-regulation programs. Currently, over 50 companies are members of such associations that offer opt-outs through such programs. Basically, Google’s extension determines if a cookie originates from a blacklisted targeted advertising provider and either blocks or allows it.

Google’s product managers claim, “We’ve designed the [Keep My Opt-Outs] extension so that it should not otherwise interfere with your web browsing experience or website functionality. This new feature gives you significant control without compromising the revenue that fuels the web content that we all consume every day.”

Internet Explorer: Tracking Protection

Some observers are convinced that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Tracking Protection is perhaps the most user-friendly method for preventing online tracking. This security feature is planned for the first release candidate of Internet Explorer 9, currently available in beta version. The Tracking Protection feature uses a list to determine which third party page elements can/cannot be blocked from tracking.

In December 2010, Dean Hachamovitch, the head of Internet Explorer development, described how Tracking Protection would work:

“A Tracking Protection List (TPL) contains Web addresses (like msdn.com) that the browser will visit (or “call”) only if the consumer visits them directly by clicking on a link or typing their address. By limiting the calls to these Web sites and resources from other Web pages, the TPL limits the information these other sites can collect.

You can look at this as a translation of the “Do Not Call” list from the telephone to the browser and web. It complements many of the other approaches being discussed for browser controls of Do Not Track.”

Other ways to resist online tracking…

While the FTC assesses the efficacy and usability of tracking-minimizing tools, privacy experts have a number of other recommendations for reducing and resisting online tracking.

  • Advertising companies use cookies to track users’ online activity. Remove and block these ad-related cookies.
  • Remove Flash cookies, which are a type of supercookie that can contain more information, web beacons and web bugs. Such cookies must be removed through Adobe’s online Flash Player page.
  • Use specialized software to remove and prevent tracking programs. Recommended titles include: Taco by Abine; Better Privacy for Firefox; Ghostery for Firefox; CCleaner; and NoScript for Firefox and Chrome.
  • InPrivate Filtering, a feature for Internet Explorer 8, prevents data from traveling between users’ computers and third parties who frequently request data.
  • Users should be cautious when giving personal information online (e.g. registration forms, social networking sites, surveys). Such information will most likely be used to customize online ads.
  • Users can use several search engines to conduct online searches. Users may want to consider using different companies for searching and web-based email services.
  • Certain search engines, such as Scroogle.org, enables users to search using Google, without the risk of being tracked and without the inconvenience of viewing ads.
  • Use a dynamic IP address, or periodically reset the IP address by disconnecting and connecting the modem.

Summary

This article focuses on online tracking, an advertising practice in which advertising companies use information about users to more accurately match consumers with products. In late 2010, the Federal Trade Commission released a report encouraging the development of do-not-track mechanisms. Three major internet browser providers – Mozilla, Google and Microsoft – have recently responded with their solutions to the problem of online tracking. The article introduces Mozilla’s Firefox do-not-track header, Google’s Chrome online tracking tool and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Tracking Protection feature, as well as other practices users may consider in order to reduce online tracking.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Sensitive Personal Information (I.A.b.)
  • Privacy Concerns – The Consumer Perspective (II.A.a.)
  • Unsolicited Marketing (II.A.e.)
  • Privacy Protection – Notice and Choice (III.A.a.)
  • Web Cookies (III.B.c.i.)
  • Web Browser Controls (III.B.c.v.)
  • Explicit and Implicit Consent – Opt-In vs. Opt-Out (IV.B.i.1.; IV.B.i.2.)
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