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Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 technology  research  practice

A Practice Tip

  • Practice

Do Not Track Listing

If you spend any time on the web, you should be aware of the fact that you can be tracked by websites that you do not visit.  This can include analytic services, advertising networks and social platforms.  Few of these offer any reliable way of opting-out.  Accordingly, we are left with working with a voluntary op-out procedure that is honoured by third-party web tracking sites.

One of the ways to prevent this tracking *at least by third parties who agree to honour a user’s Do Not Track preference* is by installing a plug-in for Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari.  One such plug-in is available from www.DoNotTrackPlus.com.

DNT+ is a browser tool that blocks the tracking capabilities of advertisers, social-networks and data-collection companies.  In addition to helping restore your on-line privacy, regain control over who sees your activities on-line, stopping pop-up ads and other advertising, it also allows you to load some websites up to 4x faster (since you are not dealing with all that tracking overhead!).

DNT+ prevents your browser from communicating with these third-party data-collectors.

Can you depend on DNT+?  In their words:

We’re also completely dedicated to your privacy, so don’t collect or track anything when you get DNT+ (unlike *cough cough* those other companies with shady ties to marketing people). The only thing we can see is that a download took place by a certain IP address so we can figure out how many users we have. There are no forms to fill out and no tracking of any kind. In fact, the only connection we ever have to the software is when it asks our servers for updates on new trackers to block. That’s it!

Who are these people you may ask?

The DoNotTrack.Us website is maintained by Stanford researchers Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan. We are affiliated with the Security Lab at the Computer Science Department and the Center for Internet and Society at the Law School.The broader Do Not Track project is a collaboration of numerous researchers, advocacy groups, and technology companies. We have worked closely with Alex FowlerSid Stamm, and other MozillansPeter EckersleyLee TienRainey Reitman, and otherEFFersAlissa CooperChris SoghoianAshkan SoltaniHarlan Yu; and many more.
Creative Commons LicenseAll text on donottrack.us is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

DNT+ is not the only way to block third-party tracking of your activities.  Ghostery is another.

To give you an idea of the controversy that this is brewing, here is The Atlantic (Alexis Madrigal on March 30, 2012) on “The Advertising Industry’s Definition of ‘Do Not Track’ Doesn’t Make Sense:

There is a battle brewing between the Federal Trade Commission and digital advertisers over a system designed to help people control their data called “Do Not Track.” On the one hand, you have the FTC saying this:

An effective Do Not Track system should go beyond simply opting consumers out of receiving targeted advertisements; it should opt them out of collection of behavioral data for all purposes other than those that would be consistent with the context of the interaction.

That seems like a pretty airtight definition. Do Not Track means, “Do not collect information about me unless it’s needed to show me content that I want to see.” That makes sense, no?

Well, it doesn’t make sense to the online ad industry as represented by the members of the Digital Advertising Alliance. They define ‘Do Not Track’ as something closer to “Do Not Target.” That is to say, the industry’s companies want to continue to collect data even after you’ve said, “Do not track me.” Their only concession is that they won’t show you ads that have been constructed with your data in mind. Here’s the summary of their position in the New York Times:

The advertising group, however, defines it as forbidding the serving of targeted ads to individuals but not prohibiting the collection of data.

I have installed DoNotTrack and I am (uncomfortably) aware of the number of sites that DNT+ has stopped.  What worries me is the number of social buttons, advertising networks and tracking companies that have not agreed to honour the voluntary opting-out of users from being tracked.  Ultimately I believe that legislation (both in the USA and in Canada) would be welcome  (and necessary) to stop such third-party tracking.  Until then, those of us that wish to take back our privacy need to download such services as DoNotTrack plug-in offered by Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society or Ghostery to take back our privacy.

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