The Head-Scratching World of Tracking Research

Privacy

All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place. – The Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy

To 99% of us, online tracking is a dishearteningly complicated business. Replace the word “the universe” with “tracking” in the above Douglas Adams quote, and you’ll get somewhere close to the truth. For those who study it for a living, this means having to wrap their heads around some incredibly complex issues in an area that is more secretive than the universe, and also more inconsistent with its rules. We sat down with Christine, one of our own researchers here at F-Secure Labs to talk a bit about how security research has evolved, as well as to get some inside information from the world of online tracking. Warning, some of this may get a bit technical!

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions Christine. Firstly, what made you want to work in information security?

I first got into computers a bit more when in high school in the Philippines. I used to play lots of DOS games, and was one of the few people among my friends who had their own computer. I Guess I became interested in them and learned to do all sorts of little fixes that others couldn’t do. When it came time to go to university, I first planned to follow my other passion of astronomy. But after a quick look at jobs available for astronomers, I thankfully decided that computer science was a safer bet.

What about your work history, how did you end up at F-Secure?

I started with the antivirus industry in 2003, first at a company called Trend Micro. The work was very different back then as we dealt mostly with file infectors, but around that time network worms started spreading like wildfire, causing red alerts in different antivirus labs worldwide. Soon the web started becoming the main distribution vector for threats, so I got involved with web-related research and honeyclient* work. After a few years, I ended up at F-Secure and end have been back at doing web-related research since 2010. Now my work is not only about the malicious side of the web, but also digital parenting and online privacy, there are so many ways to protect different kinds of users.

Is the process of tracking as complicated as they say?

After you work with it for a while, not really. But there is a lot more to it than just “an advertiser spying on you with a cookie”. There are so many different ways to track users, that it’s not possible to explain tracking as a single process. From my point of view, things get complicated when we try to create a system that blocks all the different methods of tracking but doesn’t disturb a user’s web experience. Tracking comes in a lot forms, and simply blocking certain websites or file types will unfortunately not.

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