Just how bad is online tracking?

Web tracking companies say anonymous tracking is harmless. What's the real story? Here are two scenarios where online tracking can come back to bite you.

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You might say TY4NS has a one-track mind these days. Today’s topic: How bad is online tracking, really?

The harm from having your movements tracked across the Web depends in part on how anonymous this data really is. For example, the Ghostery folks put together a clever Periodic Table of the most common 100 Web trackers, using data from its GhostRank surveys.

Click on any of the “elements” and you get a snapshot of each tracking company, its industry affiliations, the kinds of data it gathers, how long it holds onto it, and links to its privacy policies. Like this one for Audience Science:

 

Like a lot of trackers, Audience Science gathers both anonymous data and pseudonymous data such as Internet Protocol addresses. An IP address isn’t a precise indicator of your identity because it is often shared (like via a WiFi connection), but it’s pretty good. At the very least it can indicate what city you live in and who your ISP is. Any Web site, including the one you’re now reading, can record your IP address. If the same IP address is logged doing things it shouldn’t – like downloading copyrighted material from Bit Torrent sites -- that’s certainly enough evidence to slap a subpoena on the ISP to get the name and address of the person who’s paying for it.

Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer discovered that as trackers Hoover up our search histories they sometimes gather much more information, such as user names and email addresses, that gets sent as part of referral URLs. (The trackers generally deny doing anything useful with this data, which they say gets gathered unintentionally and is discarded.)

Still, IP address + user name and/or email = very good indicator of exactly who you are. So what could happen?

Worst case scenario: Web tracking companies gather up anonymous and pseudonymous data and merge them, so that your Web histories, search terms and clickstream get connected to your IP address and maybe your user name or email. Evil Government Entities (EGEs) and/or Aggressively Amoral Hackers (AAHs) gain access to this profile information, resulting in your imprisonment and/or embarrassment, depending on what you’ve been up to.

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