by Paul Rudo on 19/09/12 at 4:44 pm
It should be of no surprise to our readers that massive amounts of personal, technical, social and behavioral data are being secretly tracked about us by embedded scripts in the background of the web sites we visit. This is usually done by embedding cookies into your browser which can be tracked as you move around the Internet.
Currently online advertisers are self-regulated through various non-official governing bodies. One of the most important would be the Network Advertising Initiative which includes over 80 companies who’ve agreed to abide by their code of conduct.
But when you explicitly opt out of these tracking programs, is it really true that you’ll no longer be tracked by these companies? This is the question that Stanford University wanted to answer in a 2011 experiment.
The researchers created a set of sophisticated software tools which were designed to test how well NAI members adhere to their “opt-out” privacy promises. These tests were conducted on 64 firms, which were all members of the NAI.
For each company on their list, the researchers would load content, opt out or enable “Do Not Track”, and then reload the content. These tests provided some interesting results.
Although 2 of the companies involved in the tests took overt steps to respect their Do-Not-Track privacy obligations, half of the companies tested did not erase tracking cookies after the testers had opted out of the program.
One of the possible explanations for this was that NAI member opt-outs only apply to behavioural data targeting, and does not apply to tracking. Despite this, 8 of the test companies promised to stop behavioural ad targeting AND tracking as part of their opt-out program… but still continued to leave tracking cookies in place afterwards.
However, it’s not all bad news. Ten of the test subjects in this study were actually found to have gone well beyond their privacy obligations in the complete removal of tracking cookies. Some of these companies included Yahoo!, Google and Quantcast.
This study was very preliminary, and the researchers have said that they plan on producing much more in-depth studies like this one in the future.
The study also unintentionally became an example of effective grass-roots social activism. Because of the press generated by this study, many of the test subjects have since updated their tracking and targeting technology to provide better user privacy.
This really goes to show that the companies who collect our data and expose our privacy are also equally concerned about what information we are collecting and spreading about them.
Image source: quickmeme.com