Lentis/Web Tracking

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Introduction[edit]

What is web tracking?[edit]

Web tracking is when organizations such as government agencies or businesses track people’s online use with or without their consent. Different organizations have varying reasons for web tracking. Some government agencies, such as the National Security Agency (NSA) cite counter-terrorism efforts as their reason for web tracking[1]. Certain businesses use web tracking to create targeted advertisements; they use people’s online data to determine what they are most likely to buy[2]. Customizing advertisements for individual users based on their browsing activity is called behavioral targeting. This technique delivers ads to consumers who are more likely to be interested in the product. [3] Other businesses track online data to sell it to advertising companies[4].

Web tracking has many potential benefits. It helps companies understand how to improve their online presence through analytics, and also improves consumer experience. Websites such as Amazon, use web tracking to save user’s information and suggest products they may like. Web tracking also has disadvantages. The most obvious disadvantage is that it invades web users’ privacy. Using information about individuals, web tracking allows companies to price discriminate and direct targeted ads at vulnerable consumers.[5]

Web Tracking Technologies[edit]

Cookies[edit]

A cookie is a message that a web server sends to your web browser when you visit a website. This message is stored in a small file. When you access a page from that server, your browser sends the cookie back to the server. Cookies contain information about your visit to a web page and any personal information you have offered.[6] Websites use cookies to to learn how often their pages are viewed and to customize web pages for individual users. For example, online stores often uses cookies to access a user's personal and login information and record items in an electronic shopping cart. This means users do not have to enter this information every time they visit a site. When the website a user is accessing is sending a cookie, this is called a first-party cookie.

Third-party cookies are cookies that are placed on a user's computer by someone other than the owner of the website the user is visiting. These third-parties may be an advertiser, or a even an analytics company that helps the original site understand how users access their site.[7] These companies develop a history of the type of sites users visit. They can use this information to deliver targeted advertisements.

Fingerprinting[edit]

Fingerprinting in web tracking is analogous to fingerprinting in crime investigation. Just as every person has a unique fingerprint, it is hypothesized that everyone has a unique way of using their devices and the internet. Companies track data such as the web pages people visit, the fonts they use on their devices, and location to create a profile on users. By combining this information, companies can identify who a person is within a high confidence interval. This technique has been used to enhance targeted advertising[8]. The NSA has also made use of this technique to track people that are determined to be threats. An article by Dana Priest in the Washington Post states that the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used fingerprinting to track a terrorist’s cell phone and kill its owner. The NSA also can track suspects' biometric and financial data using web tracking.[9]

Beacons[edit]

Beacons are invisible trackers that are imprinted on websites. Beacons run software to determine what users are doing on a web page. For instance, National Public Radio (NPR) tells a story of a woman named Ashley Hayes-Beaty who was tracked by a beacon. One website asked Ashley what her favorite movies are. The beacon was able to determine what Ashley answered and what she was being asked by the website. This data is then stored by the beacon on a company’s private server where it is compiled with other data that has been gathered on her[10]. The tracking of Ashley’s favorite movies may be relatively innocuous, but other sites may ask for more important information. For example, many college applications now ask for social security numbers. Due to the invisibility of web beacons, people such as Ashley may be unknowingly giving over private personal information.

Participants[edit]

Anti-Tracking Companies[edit]

With concerns about web tracking rising, some companies are beginning to offer anti-tracking services online.[11] For example, Privacy Badger is a web browser extension that prevents advertisers and other third-party trackers from secretly tracking users. It blocks these organizations from installing cookies in a user's browser, making it impossible for them to track users.[12] DuckDuckGo is a search engine that emphasizes user privacy. Unlike other search engines, it does not track users. DuckDuckGo does not track users' IP address and allows users to turn off cookies. Although there are some ads, it allows fewer ads than search engines like Google and forces advertisers to follow their terms of service. [13]

Advocacy Groups[edit]

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is a research center founded in 1994 to increase awareness of privacy issues. They work to influence public policy to protect privacy.[14] The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a similar organization founded in 1990 which defends civil liberties by organizing political activism and influencing court cases in various ways, such as funding legal defense.[15] Both of these organizations are nonprofits supported by donors, and their existence demonstrates that internet users support their efforts and share their values of protecting rights in the digital age.

National Security Agency[edit]

Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the extent of the NSA’s web tracking[16]. The program that provides the NSA’s tracking capability is XKeyscore. XKeyscore allows for analysts to track large amounts of data about people’s web use such as their email address, content of their emails, websites that have been browsed, private chat history, and IP addresses. The program also lets analysts gain data on the people that are being contacted by the person being tracked. What some United States citizens found troubling about this level of surveillance is that it could be done without a warrant. The NSA, however, states that they attempt to remove any United States citizen’s data as long as they are not communicating with a foreign target[17]. Also, the NSA states that their reason for existing is to protect the United States and its allies against terrorists and extremist groups, implying their reasons for web tracking are altruistic[18].

Advertising Companies[edit]

Internet companies such as Google make a great deal of their profits from advertising. This advertising is customized to deliver content based on users’ interests based upon information gathered as a user travels through the Internet. These advertisements can be based upon user behavior, demographics, location, and similarity to other users. [19] DoubleClick is a company owned by Google that uses analytics to develop user profiles and deliver online advertisements for its clients.[20]

Targeted Advertising Case[edit]

A writer for the Atlantic looked into companies which tracked her during a 36-hour period, and found that a total of 105 companies had collected data on her. After filling out the “opt out” forms of many of the companies, she found that she was still being tracked. The opt out forms were to stop the targeted advertising, but there was no way to stop the online tracking.[21]

Legislation[edit]

The USA PATRIOT Act is a law passed shortly following the September 11, 2001 attacks. It expanded the government’s anti-terrorism abilities, particularly surveillance and investigation. Section 215 of the Act was one of the most controversial provisions due to the breadth, allowing the government to obtain any books, documents, and other physical records if they were connected to a terrorism investigation. Other provisions allowed authorities to search homes or businesses without notifying occupants or owners, which was criticized for the potential of this provision to be used for cases unrelated to terrorism.[22]


The USA Freedom Act was signed into law in June 2015. Supported by advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and companies like Google and Microsoft, the law protects civil liberties by ending the bulk collection enabled by the USA PATRIOT Act[23]. Another Act which supports consumer privacy is the Do Not Track Online Act of 2015. The intent of the act is to provide a way for internet users to prevent companies from tracking their information online.[24] These laws demonstrate the desire of users to be in control of their privacy and limit the information gathering abilities of both the government and private companies.

Conclusion[edit]

Web tracking provides many benefits to users. Private companies can provide advertisements which are relevant to users’ interests, and governments can mitigate terrorism and support national security. However, these benefits come at a cost. By allowing companies and governments to collect information on internet activity, privacy can be sacrificed. The Internet is still a relatively new technology, and finding a balance between limiting the extent of web tracking to protect privacy and still benefitting from the use of web tracking is yet to come.

References[edit]

  1. Frequently Asked Questions. NSA (2016).https://www.nsa.gov/about/faqs/about-nsa-faqs.shtml#about4
  2. How To Stop Advertising Companies From Tracking Your Online Activity For Targeted Web Ads. Business Insider (2011).http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-stop-advertising-companies-from-tracking-your-online-activity-for-targeted-web-ads-2011-2
  3. PRmention (2017). Behavioral Targeting. https://www.prmention.com/blog/how-to-enhance-pr-results-using-behavioral-targeting/
  4. Tracking The Companies That Track You Online.NPR (2010).http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129298003
  5. Center For Digital Democracy. (2009). Online Behavioral Tracking and Targeting: Legislative Primer September 2009. https://www.democraticmedia.org/privacy-legislative-primer
  6. Indiana University. (2016). What are cookies?.https://kb.iu.edu/d/agwm.
  7. Federal Trade Commission. (2016). Online Tracking. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0042-online-tracking.
  8. Internet Tracking Has Moved Beyond Cookies. FiveThirtyEight (2016).http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/internet-tracking-has-moved-beyond-cookies/
  9. "NSA Growth Fueled By Need To Target Terrorists". Washington Post (July 21, 2013).
  10. Tracking The Companies That Track You Online.NPR (2010).http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129298003
  11. Chahal, Mindi. (2016 June 23). Marketers overestimate consumers’ attitude to data .[1].
  12. Electronic Frontier Foundation. (2016). Privacy Badger. .[2].
  13. DuckDuckGo. (2016). We don't collect or share personal information.[3].
  14. About EPIC. Electronic Privacy Information Center (2016).https://epic.org/epic/about.html
  15. About EFF. Electronic Frontier Foundation (2016).https://www.eff.org/about
  16. Edward Snowden, Whistle-Blower. New York Times. (2014).https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/02/opinion/edward-snowden-whistle-blower.html?_r=0
  17. XKeyscore:NSA tool Collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’. The Guardian. (2013).https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data
  18. Understanding the Threat. NSA. (2016).https://www.nsa.gov/what-we-do/understanding-the-threat/
  19. I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web. The Atlantic (2012).http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/im-being-followed-how-google-151-and-104-other-companies-151-are-tracking-me-on-the-web/253758/
  20. I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web. The Atlantic (2012).http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/im-being-followed-how-google-151-and-104-other-companies-151-are-tracking-me-on-the-web/253758
  21. DoubleClick (2016). Grow Your Digital Advertising Business. https://www.google.com/doubleclick/publishers/small-business/index.html
  22. The Patriot Act: Key Controversies. NPR (2005).http://www.npr.org/news/specials/patriotact/patriotactdeal.html
  23. USA Freedom Act. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee (2015).https://judiciary.house.gov/issue/usa-freedom-act/
  24. Blumenthal, Markey Introduce Legislation to Increase Protections for Online Consumers. Richard Blumenthal, United States Senator for Connecticut (2015).https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/blumenthal-markey-introduce-legislation-to-increase-protections-for-online-consumers