Everything you always wanted to know about Web tracking (but were too paranoid to ask)

Who is tracking you online and what do they want? The answers aren't obvious. Take this True/False quiz to find out how much you really know about Web tracking.

Think Web trackers aren't following you? Think again. Just by visiting this Web site, roughly half a dozen ad networks and Web analytics companies have deposited tracking cookies on your machine. Don't freak out, it's not as bad as it seems. In fact, there's an awful lot of hype, fear, and misinformation surrounding Web tracking -- and both sides are guilty of overstating the dangers of tracking, as well as the benefits.

How much do you know about Web tracking? Take the following True/False quiz to find out. What follows is semi-informed opinion mixed with facts -- which is the way we like to roll here at TY4NS.

True or False: Only a handful of companies track users across the Web.

FALSE

Actually, more than 800 companies drop tracking cookies on people's computers, according to Evidon, which helps advertisers comply with self regulatory programs. Ever hear of Adfonic, Clicksor, or VigLink? Probably not. But they may have heard of you.

True or False: Trackers know everything about you and your Web surfing history.

FALSE

First, tracking cookies don't actually track people, they track browsers. So while it's possible a Web tracker will know everything your browser did -- or pretty close to it -- it won't necessarily know whose fingers were on the keyboard at any time, or what you did using another browser or a different machine.

Second, most trackers only know that you're you -- or that your browser is your browser -- via a unique identification number placed inside a cookie, not by your name. (Though not always; see the next question.)

Third, tracking cookies only record your Web surfing habits on sites that use the same ad networks. For example, Doubleclick knows the sites you've visited that also display Doubleclick ads, but it won't know what sites you visited that use only 24/7 Real Media ads, and vice versa. Of course, these days nearly every ad-supported site uses tracking cookies from multiple networks, so the odds are good both Doubleclick and 24/7 Real Media know where you've been.

Finally, the information they do collect is extremely crude. While Web advertising networks collect the URLs of the sites you've visited, the ads you've seen, and what you've clicked on, they parse this information into generic "audience segments" -- like your age, gender, and interests -- which they use to deliver more relevant ads to you. (And which are often laughably inaccurate.) Evidon's Web site offers a simple tutorial explaining how this works.

True or False: Web trackers know nothing about you personally because you're totally anonymous to them.

TRUE and FALSE

Some of the information sent back by tracking cookies includes information that could be used to identify you. As Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer has pointed out, many sites deliver personally identifiable information (like email addresses) as part of the referring URL sent back to Web trackers. (See "Sex, Drugs, and Internet advertising.") The Web trackers claim that they don't want this information, do not use it, and would not know how to use it even if they wanted to. But if they really wanted to, they could figure out how to use and even monetize that information. It's only a matter of time.

True or False: Federal privacy laws protect our personal surfing data from being used without our permission.

FALSE

There are no laws regarding private collection of your surfing data, though Do Not Track legislation has certainly been a hot topic of conversation lately. Depending on the day of the week and the person asked, the Federal Trade Commission both supports Do Not Track laws and would prefer the online ad industry come up with ways to regulate itself.

Naturally, the online advertising industry prefers the latter option. Companies like Evidon are rolling out an ad labeling program that consumers can use to find out who's tracking them and what kinds of information they collect. Evidon CEO Scott Meyer says only 10 to 15 percent of tracking ads currently carry the labels, but he expects that number to climb significantly by year's end.

True or False: Opting out of tracking ads is an easy one-step process

FALSE

If you really want to become invisible to Web trackers, you've got your work cut out for you. You can opt out of tracking ads from most of the major networks via the Network Advertising Initiative site. But in other cases you'll have to visit the advertising network's site to opt out. And those opt outs are browser and machine specific. If you use multiple browsers or surf the Net using more than one device, you'll have to repeat the process all over again each time.

And -- here's the fun part -- even then many ad networks will continue to collect information about your browsing habits for a variety of reasons, including simply the fact that their cookies already collect this information and they can't be bothered to change them. They'll simply stop sending you ads based on the information they collect.

A better idea is to install software that identifies tracking cookies and helps you delete them, such as Evidon's Ghostery browser add-on or even Symantec's Internet Security suite.

True or False: Without web tracking, advertising revenue will dry up and the "free" Internet will disappear.

FALSE

That's certainly the mantra of the online ad industry. The reality is that only a relatively small percentage of Web ads are targeted, yet the Net advertising industry is looking at record breaking revenues of $30 billion this year and is growing by double digits annually. Remember: The TV, radio, and print publishing industries don't target ads (though they would if they could), and they haven't disappeared -- yet.

However, targeted ads are what many companies are banking on to make ads more efficient. Advertisers live in fear that if users are given the option to choose between tracking and not tracking, they'll pick the latter -- depriving ad networks of the data they need to target ads effectively, and the revenue associated with that.

Also, I don't know about you, but I pay well over a thousand dollars a year for Internet access at home, work, and on mobile devices. So that whole "the Internet will cease to be free" argument kind of irritates me.

True or False: A Do Not Track law will make the Web a safer place to surf.

MAYBE

The fact is, the difference between being tracked and not being tracked will likely be completely invisible to 99 percent of consumers. Nobody really knows what harm online tracking could cause. But as mobile ads take off and location data gets factored into the mix, it raises all kinds of privacy questions -- like whether tracking data can be linked to people's identities, and what other things this data could be used for besides advertising.

The answers to those questions? Your guess is as good as anyone's. Which is why it's so important to talk about the implications of Web tracking now, before it becomes so entrenched it's impossible to avoid.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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