They have your cookies – An overview of internet privacy

Introduction

Today, millions of people browse the internet. Some people browse up to 8 hours a day. The significant rise of internet browsing has created opportunities to exploit this trend. In the past couple of years, the value of data has gone through the roof because it can be used for personalized ad campaigns in an effort to persuade users to spend more money. With such a rise of demand for data, an entire industry came into existence with one and only purpose – to mine data. These data mining companies carefully place cookies on websites. They then track the users’ internet activity through these cookies.

Cookies

The cookies from the websites the user visits are known as first party cookies; these cookies contain information such as passwords, shopping cart items, and preferences. These cookies make internet browsing more convenient. On the other hand, there are third party cookies, which pretty much do the opposite. Third party cookies are cookies received from websites that the user does not directly visit. These cookies are typically downloaded through ads on websites. Once the cookies are downloaded, the cookies’ original website can track the user’s internet activity.  Tracking user data is known as behavioral tracking.

The analogy of a cookie is the best way to describe what is happening. In this analogy, the user is carrying a cookie. This cookie represents the user’s personal information such as interests, work, etc. The user drops cookie crumbs all over them. These crumbs represent pieces of the cookie, also known as the users’s personal information. Third party tracking websites then gather all the cookie crumbs and “recreate the cookie”. This effectively gives these websites a significant amount of information about the user.

Lightbeam

 

Lightbeam, previously known as Collusion, is a Mozilla Firefox add-on developed by Mozilla. This add-on for Firefox tracks all cookies stored in the browser. With the information from the cookies, Lightbeam generates a graph, displaying all the websites that downloaded cookies those cookies.This add-on is a means to “track the tracker”. It gives information about all the websites that are tracking the user through the third party cookies.

 “Collusion (Lightbeam) will allow us to pull back the curtain and provide users with more information about the growing role of third parties, how data drives most Web experiences, and ultimately how little control we have over that experience and our loss of data” – Gary Kovacs

 

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This is a graph generated by Lightbeam. I browsed some of my favorite websites for a period of about 20 minutes. In that period of time, I have directly visited 11 different websites. This is shown on the top left corner of the image above. The horrifying news about this image is actually the number of third party sites I have connected to within 20 minutes. 83 third party websites; that means 83 websites are tracking me on the internet. They are tracking my browsing habits, the sites I like to visit, and my interests.

The diagram in the image shows the websites that are tracking me as I browsed the internet. All the circles with the pictures on them are the websites I directly visited. All triangles are the websites that I have not visited. It is absolutely shocking to see the number of websites stalking my internet usage, especially without my consent. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the web. Whether the users like it or not, the internet is not a private place.

Privacy

Privacy is, or the lack or it, is the central theme. Third party websites are tracking millions and millions of users all over the internet without their consent. With this tracking information, these websites create a profile for each one of those people. The unfortunate news is that these practices are not regulated by the government; that is – the companies that are engaged in these practices can use this data however they wish.

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” – Derek Powazek

These words could not be truer today. The top leaders in this industry generate about $39,000,000,000 a year. This is an industry that must be regulated by the government. There is no telling how these companies can use the user information in the future.

 

The Good News

While this seems like a hopeless situation as of yet, there is some good news. Internet tracking can be partially prevented. Users can download a list of add-ons for Chrome and Firefox that can be used to essentially “track the trackers”. These add-ons track the list of websites that are tracking your internet usage. Some give you the option to block the tracking. Be warned – blocking tracking websites may affect your browsing experience – for better or worse.

The following are a list of add-ons users can download.

Google Chrome add-ons

  • Adblock Plus
  • Ghostery
  • ScriptNO
  • Do Not Track Plus

Mozilla Firefox add-ons

  • Adblock Plus
  • Ghostery
  • Do Not Track Plus
  • NoScript
  • Priv3

 

Sources

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