Online tracking is growing faster than most people realize

In one year the number of tracking firms have doubled and the amount of data they collect has grown more than 400 percent, according to a study by Krux Digital.

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Get the uncomfortable feeling you’re being followed? It’s not paranoia. Your movements across the Web are being tracked more and more each day, by more companies you’ve never heard of.

Krux Digital, makers of data management platforms for Web publishers, analyzed the top 50 Web publishers in November 2010 and again last December to determine who was tracking users and what kind of information they were collecting. Their findings?

In the space of just one year:

* The number of tracking companies on the most popular sites nearly doubled, from 167 last year to more than 300 this year.

* The average number of “data collection events” (primarily tracking cookies) climbed from 10 to more than 50 per page. That’s a 400 percent increase.

* The amount of data collected by ad networks grew by more than 600 percent.

 

 

The biggest culprits behind this tracking are ad networks that not only drop tracking cookies on your hard drive, but also “usher in” other third-party trackers to drop even more cookies. It’s like inviting someone you barely know to a party and they show up with sixteen uninvited guests, who proceed to drink all your booze and eat all the snacks before moving on to the next soiree.

In this metaphor, your data – primarily your browsing history – are the drinks and the snacks. The party crashers are analytics companies, widget makers, ad exchanges, and others who are snarfing up your profile without telling you or the publishers whose sites you’re visiting.

The biggest reason behind this surge in tracking is the rise of Real Time Bidding, says Gordon McLeod, president of Krux. With RTB, computer algorithms determine what ads you see, based on your Web history and how much advertisers are willing to pay for someone who fits a particular profile.

For example, if you’ve spent the last week looking at Web sites for Hawaii vacation rentals, auto insurance rates, and golf shoes, all of these advertisers could be bidding to display you an ad when you dial up CNN.com on Sunday morning. The ad you see would be from the advertiser willing to pay the most for your particular profile, says McLeod.

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