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Who's tracking you online?

Find out who is spying on your web browsing and how to beat them

The internet is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of the modern age. Never in all of history have so many people had access to so much information, easily and - in the most part - for free. Projects such as Wikipedia have shown what can be achieved by an ideology to do good and harness the power of the masses working together for a common goal.

Where previous generations in need of knowledge had turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica (if they were fortunate enough to own the multi-volume repository) people now instead access its online contemporaries - Google, Wikipedia, or simply asking a question on Twitter. Even Britannica itself has replaced the famous leather tomes with a subscription based website that’s better equipped to keep up with the public’s constant thirst for knowledge.

Social media has grown at a phenomenal rate and with it transformed our ability to communicate on a wide scale. Tracking down old friends and colleagues is no longer the preserve of amateur detectives with a battered book of phone numbers and addresses circa 1993.

Now it’s simply a case of going on Facebook and typing in their name - unless of course they happen to be called John Smith or Patrick Murphy, then you might still be in for a spot of sleuthing.

We have available to us an incredible amount of online services such as Skype, Gmail, Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, and innumerable websites that have now become an essential part of people’s lives - all of which offer their wondrous bounty for the princely sum of naught. Truly this is a golden age for technology and those that would have the good fortune to use it. But how does this make any sense at all?

We know that businesses need to make money to even exist, let alone thrive. Google’s data centres are famously home to thousands of computers, each holding fragments of the world wide web within them. YouTube users upload over 48 hours of video to the site every minute, which works out to a staggering 8 years of content every day. Facebook is currently home to over 900 million users, giving it a population greater than most countries.

We don’t pay to search, upload badly taken photographs of school plays, or watch little pandas sneezing, yet Google is one of the most profitable companies in the world and when Facebook recently went public it was valued at a whopping £66 billion.  

So how do they do it? What’s the secret to their success? Well, technical brilliance aside, the answer is very simple. It’s you. Or more accurately, what you like. Or even more accurately, what you are likely to buy.

The free services we access on a daily basis are watching us, where we go, what we do, and using that information to provide their advertisers, or in some cases other people’s advertisers, with profiles that enable them to sell to us more effectively and increase the chance that we will click the ‘add to basket’ button. As the saying goes ‘If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’.

Online tracking

During his recent TED talk ‘Tracking the Trackers’, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs discussed the idea of Behaviour Tracking and its proliferation across the web. In essence, when you visit a website a cookie is created in your browser which allows the site to know you are there and helps perform basic tasks such as maintaining the contents of your shopping basket while you continue to browse the site.

They can also gather information on the pages you visit and items you click on, so that the contents you are offered are more relevant to your tastes. Generally they enhance the browsing experience (just try disabling all cookies in your browser privacy settings to see how clunky the web can really be) and often save us from having to log in or set preferences every time we visit a favourite site.

All of this is perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s helpful, but the issue Kovacs was discussing happens after you leave the site in question and go elsewhere.

Traditionally you would expect a site to retain the information on the cookie for the duration of your stay and then for it to become inert once you leave. But that isn’t always the case. Third-Party cookies are now very likely to also be watching our movements, sometimes across several sites, and to none of which we have ever given our consent.

The effects are easy to observe, in fact you’ve probably already seen them several times. By simply browsing or searching for details on, say, the new Batman film it won’t be long until related products begin appearing in the advertisements on other sites you visit, sometimes with unnerving accuracy.

This is made possible by the relationships between the host sites and online advertising companies such as Scorecard Research, Tribal Fusion and Google’s own DoubleClick. The idea is to provide you with a more tailored experience online, and of course tempt you to click through to the item in question and make a purchase.

Revenue generated from these advertisements is quite staggering. In 2011 Google was reported to have made $37 billion, with nearly all of it coming from its AdWords and AdSense income streams. Facebook also raked in a highly respectable $3.7 billion with 85% coming from advertising. As you can see from the figures it’s no surprise that companies are very keen to know what we want to buy, and the most effective way to place those products in front of us.

The idea of our habits being monitored, especially by those that would seek to profit from it, is an uncomfortable truth that now accompanies our heavily interconnected online world. Gary Kovacs puts it very eloquently: "We are like Hansel and Gretel, leaving bread crumbs of our personal information everywhere we travel through the digital woods".

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