What Clicking Tells Online Trackers

Privacy

The Internet is first and foremost a communication medium. Every link that people click, every character they enter, and every video they watch involves an exchange of information. And it’s not just a two-way conversation between a person and their computer, or a person and someone they’re chatting with. There’s more people than listening in, and because computers use languages that people don’t necessarily understand, it’s logical to infer that many people may not be fully aware of what they’re actually saying.

F-Secure launched a new Privacy Checker to help pull back the magic curtain that hides online tracking. A lot of online tracking is about employing passive data collection techniques – techniques that allow observers to monitor behavior without having any direct interaction with the people they’re observing. Such passive data collection techniques are pervasive online, and websites are often designed to facilitate this kind of tracking. The prevalence of these technologies lends credence to the idea that control is becoming ubiquitous online, and represents a substantial threat to digital freedom.

Do you ever read “top 10” articles or other types of lists on websites that require you to “turn pages” by clicking a button? Clicking those buttons lets online trackers know how far you go in the article before you stop reading (not something that can be done reliably when content is on a single page). That’s how passive data collection works.

The Privacy Checker works by checking the information stored in web browsers, and then generates a report about what it’s learned. It can usually deduce where you’re located, what language you speak, whether or not you were directed to the checker from Google or another website, what device and operating system you’re using, and whether or not you allow your browser to use tracking cookies.

If you think about this as a communicative event – an interaction in which information is exchanged – simply clicking a button has told the Privacy Checker all of this information. So if you were to breakdown the result from a check I ran as an interaction, you could say I told the Privacy Checker the following:

“I am in Helsinki, Finland”.

“I speak English”.

“I use Google.fi to find things online”.

“I use a mobile device with Android 4.4.2”.

“I allow my browser to accept cookies”.

The Privacy Checker responded by explaining what I told it when I pushed the “Check Now” button. The Privacy Checker also provided me with some information on how companies use the things I tell them to make money.

The Privacy Checker is probably the only online conversation partner that you’ll ever have that provides you with this transparency. Many people don’t know or aren’t interested in constantly sharing this information, and many websites are designed to help their administrators make money from this data.

And this is a key threat to online privacy: more and more technologies are being developed to capture, store, and analyze your data without your knowledge. This blog post emphasizes the significance of the threat by pointing out that huge investments are being made in companies and technologies that monetize your data. The author even refers to it as information about “pseudo-private” behavior – a label that really underscores how much value some of these companies place on privacy.

The Privacy Checker sheds some light on this to help people understand what they’re really saying when they click around the web. It’s free to use and available on F-Secure’s new Digital Privacy website, which contains more information about online privacy and the fight for digital freedom.

[ Image by geralt | Pixabay ]

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