Recent privacy scandals got many people concerned and debating over the rise of online privacy. Today we will explore what web tracking is, how it works and why is it important to be aware of it.
Web Tracking Explained
Web tracking is the practice by which websites identify and collect information about users. This is generally in the form of some subset of web browsing history.
How Does Web Tracking Work?
Whenever you utilize the Internet, you leave a record of the websites you visit, along with everything you click. To track this information, many websites save a tiny piece of data, embed invisible objects, or manage your user accounts and hardware configuration.
Why Do They Do It?
From the perspective of website owners and of trackers, it provides desirable functionality, including personalization, site analytics, and targeted advertising.
Without trackers, an e-commerce website would have to treat every user as a stranger and would be unable to present personalized content which would lead to fewer sales down the road.
Is Web Tracking Malicious?
Web tracking isn’t 100% malicious, but its workings remain poorly understood. After you switch websites, advertisements for products you have just looked at, or products you looked recently, reappear! The most significant concern involves trackers from third-party websites.
First-party vs. Third-party Web Tracking
Say, for example, you visit The New York Times website. They know you have visited and know which article you read. In this case, the New York Times is a “first-party.”
Because you choose to visit a first-party, we are not particularly concerned about what the first-party knows from your visit. A third-party tracker such as advertising provider embedded in the news website, however, could be a different story.
What is Third-party Tracking?
Third-party web tracking refers to the practice by which an entity (the tracker), other than the website directly visited by the user, tracks, or assists in tracking the user’s visit to the site.
Once there is one third-party on a page, that third-party can turn around and invite any number of other third-parties to the first-party webpage.
Your personal information is valuable, and it is your right to know what data is being collected about you.
The trick is in taking this data and teaming up with third parties to help them come up with new ways to convince people to spend money, sign up for services, and give up more information.
You might think that this tracking is anonymous in a way since your real name is not attached to it. But many third-parties do know your real identity.
For example, when Facebook acts as a third-party tracker, they can recognize your identity as long as you have created a Facebook account.
It is also possible for a tracker to de-anonymize a user by algorithmically exploiting the statistical similarity between their browsing history and their social media profile.
Below are the most common tracking mechanisms:
Cookies are the most widely recognized method to identify a user. They utilize small pieces of data (each limited to 4 KB) placed in browser storage by the webserver. When a user visits a website for the first time, a cookie file with a unique user identifier (could be randomly generated) is stored on the user’s computer.
Subsequent visits to the Facebook page do not require you to log in, because the browser will remember your details through a cookie stored during your first login.
Browser fingerprinting is a highly accurate way to identify and track users whenever they go online. The information collected is quite comprehensive, and often includes the browser type and version, operating system and version, screen resolution, supported fonts, plugins, time zone, language and font preferences, and even hardware configurations.
These identifiers may seem generic and not at all personally identifying. But, typically only one in several million people have precisely the same specifications as you.
Web beacons are tiny, usually invisible objects embedded into a web page or email. Web beacons are also referred to as “web bugs,” which also go by the names “tags,” “page tags,” “tracking bugs,” “pixel trackers,” or “pixel gifs.”
In their purest form, they are tiny clear images, often the size of a single pixel. They download as an image when the web page is loaded, or the email is opened, making a call to a remote server for the image. The server call alerts the company that their email has just been opened or their web page visited.
This is why you should not display images in emails from senders you do not trust.
Web beacons are also used by online advertisers who embed them into their ads so they can independently track how often their ads are being displayed.
There is a lot of tracking going on these days, and we hope you found this article helpful. By understanding the tracking mechanisms we can protect our privacy and avoid unnecessary troubles online.