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Tracking your every move
Image by Toben Black on Flickr

Image by Toben Black on Flickr

The number of third party tracking and advertising companies has expanded as rapidly as the internet. When visiting a web page, chances are your browsing habits are being tracked and recorded by tiny or invisible JavaScript images. The tracking is performed by many different firms and is being combined with social networking data to create extensive consumer profiles in order to market to the individual more efficiently.

In a test conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), foundation members visited the US’ largest job site (CareerBuilder.com) and discovered their browsing habits were being monitored by 10 tracking scripts! These included three from companies owned by AOL, a Google owned company and a Microsoft owned company as well as other smaller firms undoubtedly working for other larger corporations. As one of the study conductors Peter Eckersley stated in his blog:

There are pretty sound reasons to hope that when you search for a job online, that fact isn’t broadcast to dozens of companies you’ve never heard of — but that’s precisely what’s happening here.

These companies can follow what we search for over the web using hard to delete cookies and the aforementioned JavaScript. Over time, these companies build up large profiles of what we have visited. Unfortunately, the news gets worse for the average internet user. Now thanks to social networking, these companies not only have a history of your browsing habits, they know who you are!

In a paper by Krishnamurthy and Wills it was revealed that 11 out of the 12 social networking sites examined leaked information to advertising and tracking firms. When users log in, the tracking companies following them access the information and further simply expand their consumer profiles.

By tracking your social networking viewing, tracking companies have developed personalised profiles of your internet use, not just as a nameless consumer, but as you the individual.

Following the EFF’s idea, I myself conducted my own experiment into who is watching me online. Using the FireFox plugin- NoScript (get it at http://noscript.net/getit#direct) I visited the pages I frequent to see who was looking at my browsing habits. I discovered that I was being nearly constantly watched by tracking companies, something which i found quite unnerving. On the pages I checked there were some legitimate scripts for videos etc, however, it wasn’t hard to pick the tracking scripts with names like easyseek4u.info and statcounter.com.

Also, out of interest, I checked out CareerBuilder.com website and discovered only 2-4 scripts (depending on which page I was on). I thought this may have potentially been because of my location outside of the US. As a result my information was less relevant as the majority of these tracking companies are US based and thus I received less attention.

The bottom line is, however, that there are companies out on the internet trying to create consumer profiles for you in order to market to you more effectively. Try an anti-script program like NoScript, it’s free and while it may initially disrupt your viewing of videos and other embedded items, it lets you know exactly who is trying to watch you online! Furthermore, the EFF Blog, provided some great tips on how to stay unobserved online.

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