UC Berkeley web census shows that Internet users are constantly tracked

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A survey released Tuesday by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology found that a majority of popular websites employ some sort of tracking technology in order to monitor their users.

According to the report accompanying the Web Privacy Census, the main goal of the May 17 census was “to define and quantify vectors for tracking consumers on the internet.” The report was the first in a planned series of ongoing quarterly censuses.

Data was collected from the top 100, 1,000 and 25,000 most popular websites, according to Quantcast, which measures web audiences. The census found that all of the top 100 websites install cookies on users’ computers.

Essentially, cookies allow websites to place software onto users’ computers, which could potentially include tracking software. Websites generally use these tracking methods for advertising purposes.

The census was conducted by Nathan Good, chief scientist and principal of Good Research, and Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. The effort was aided by Abine, Inc., a company that helps consumers protect their web privacy.

Good said that tracking facilitates much of the online software world and services, and that consumers should be aware that tracking is happening so that they can decide what level of comfort they have with the services they use.

“Web privacy is a complicated and very nuanced problem,” Good said. “The purpose of studies like these (is) to provide more data so that decision-makers, researchers and the public can make more informed decisions as well as facilitate dialogue on these important issues.”

Good and Hoofnagle worked with Abine, Inc. for the past four to six months to develop the necessary processes of collecting and recording the information for the census. They conducted both a shallow and a deep analysis of popular websites in order to compile the data.

Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst for Abine, Inc., said in an email that her company’s program tracks code and analyzes tracking types, trends and changes over time, including techniques that advertisers use to avoid detection.

“We’ve put a tremendous amount of time and energy into understanding and monitoring how people are tracked online,” Downey said. ”We were happy to use the tools we built for our own products to help Berkeley’s census and give back to the privacy community.”

The census also found that while cookie use is declining, websites are increasingly using a newer technology called HTML5 local storage. Good explained that these storage objects can be used by the website to store anything on a user’s computer, including tracking software. The census results show that HTML5 local storage usage has doubled from 2011 to 2012.

According to Downey, people do not realize that ad companies and social networks track behavior on nearly every web site they visit, collecting data about everything from what people search, watch, read, buy and even what they write in private emails.

“Privacy is a fertile ground for further research from Berkeley and others, and we hope that students interested in these issues help contribute in the future,” Downey said.