Who is tracking you across the Web? Even the ad industry doesn’t know

Web tracking has become so widespread that nobody knows who all these companies are or what data they're collecting.

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Anyone who’s been following the twists and turns of the raging Do Not Track debate knows that both sides are still pretty far apart. Privacy advocates want consumers to have the ability to block all tracking. Period, full stop.

Advertisers claim that without tracking, the “free” Internet as we know it would die. They also claim that, if people could only see how benign data collection is and how it benefits them, they would happily agree to be tracked all the livelong day. (Despite the fact that half a dozen consumer surveys indicate the exact opposite.) This is what advertisers like to call “transparency.”

So let’s take Sears.com as an example. Sears is not a publisher in the traditional sense. Its business model does not rely on advertising. Sears exists to sell people dishwashers – and really, to sell extended warranties on those dishwashers, charged to a Sears credit card with a 24 percent annual interest rate.

But when you visit Sears.com, this is what happens.

This image comes via TrackerMap, a new service being marketed to Web publishers by Evidon. TrackerMap uses data collected by the Ghostery browser tool to display the various entities that take up residence on your computer when you visit a site. Some of these entities just deliver the ads, some record who viewed them, some collect analytics data on Web traffic, and some are behavioral trackers that use cookies to follow you around the Web so they can build profiles of you and your habits. (Often, comically inaccurate ones.)

As you can see from the map, most of these trackers have no direct relationship with Sears. They are brought in by other companies like BrightTag and Rubicon, who in turn bring in their own tracking and analytics friends. It’s like a party on your hard drive, only you haven’t been invited.

(Evidon has a dozen sample tracking maps on its site, some even more complicated than this one. Their man purpose is to show publishers how all these uninvited bits of code slow down page loads, but they’re still fascinating to look at.)

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