Businessman with binoculars spying on users, invasion of privacy by tracking online behavior
Invasion of Privacy: Tracking Your Online Behavior Across the Web

Invasion of Privacy: Tracking Your Online Behavior Across the Web

Every time you visit a website, there’s a good chance that several different corporations are following your every move. They are seeing what you click on, which pages you visit, and where you head next after you visit their page. In fact, according to a new “Tracking the Trackers” report just released by software company Ghostery, 79% of all websites globally are secretly tracking your online behavior. Moreover, many of the trackers set up on these website are, in turn, forwarding your personal information to other companies. For web users everywhere, the message is clear: it’s time to take back the web and end this widespread invasion of privacy.

Ghostery based its invasion of privacy study on the Internet browsing habits of 850,000 users from 12 different countries, making it the largest study of its kind to date. As part of its review of just how extensive this invasion of privacy really is, Ghostery looked at 144 million page loads across a wide variety of web browsers, including Firefox, Chrome and Opera.

Results of the invasion of privacy report

What makes the report so eye-opening is just how pervasive this invasion of privacy really is. What Ghostery found was that this type of web tracking and monitoring of online behavior was global in scope, even if many of the tracking companies are actually based in the United States. That makes invasion of privacy through tracking of online behavior a global phenomenon. On more than three-quarters of all websites that you visit, you are picking up a tracking cookie to monitor your online behavior.

The Ghostery report makes a strong case that many web users have lost control of what information about their online behavior they are really sharing – and with whom. For example, 15% of all page loads on the Internet are monitored by 10 or more trackers. Moreover, 10% of all websites are sending the data they record to 10 or more additional companies. Thus, even if you are browsing websites of companies that you trust – such as your bank or medical provider – there’s really no guarantee that any of the personal information you leave behind on these sites won’t be packaged up and sold to someone else, in what would be a clear invasion of privacy.

Who is tracking your online behavior?

The silver lining in the Ghostery report – if you’re an optimist – is that all this tracking of online behavior is not being carried out by nefarious government surveillance organizations or black hat hackers. Instead, the tracking is being carried out by a vast network of companies that are part of the Internet’s advertising ecosystem. “In today’s advertising-driven internet ecosystem, it’s ad tech and tracking companies that determine how websites look and how fast they load,” said Jeremy Tillman, Director of Product at Ghostery.

For these ad tech companies, all of the little snippets of data that can be tracked online – such as your social shares on a site like Facebook, your browsing history or your content settings on a news media site – can also be converted into a more complete customer profile, letting them know where you shop and what your web browsing and online behavior habits are – and perhaps even offer insights into your financial and medical condition.

The two biggest invasion of privacy culprits that are most interested in your online behavior, according to Ghostery, are two companies that anyone around the world would recognize: Google and Facebook. According to its study, Google tracks 60.3% of all Internet page loads around the world (primarily via Google Analytics), while Facebook tracks 27.1% of all page loads. Other well-known companies tracking your behavior include Comscore (11.4%) and Twitter (10.5%).

A worst case invasion of privacy scenario

As Ghostery points out, there are literally thousands of other tracking scripts that can be enabled on any website. When all of these tracking scripts are added to a page, you can imagine what happens next: they can dramatically slow down the average page load time of a website. That leads to a slower, ad-cluttered web browsing experience.

However, there’s an even more damaging result of all this web tracking: the threat to your personal privacy. Since the majority of companies that are tracking your behavior are doing so for advertising purposes (the more they know about you, the more likely they can sell to you), many of the biggest web trackers specifically collect the type of information that can be used to create a full online profile of a user.

For example, while it might be interesting to know which online shops you like to visit – especially if you’ve passed up a chance to buy on their own website – it’s even more interesting to collect the type of psychographic information that no web user would willingly share with a stranger – like your political affiliation, your sexual orientation, or your religion. For other organizations to have access to that type of information via tracking of your online behavior is a clear invasion of privacy.

In one example outlined by Ghostery in its report, the Mayo Clinic’s HIV testing site is filled with online trackers. Presumably, any user who visits this site is concerned with the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), and especially HIV. Moreover, frequent visits to this site might give unwanted insights into your personal sexual life.

Alternatives to online tracking

So, if you’re an average web user, what options do you really have to avoid this unwanted intrusion into your personal life? One option might be to use browsers that enable private browsing mode. Another option might be the use of a web browser extension for privacy protection, such as the types of browser add ons provided by Ghostery. This browser extension includes AI-powered anti-tracking technology, in addition to blocklist technology. You can think of this browser extension as a type of “cloak of invisibility” that protects your personal data from the prying eyes of unknown corporations.

“Not only is it a significant burden on CPU and network resources to load scripts from all these different parties, but there is also little transparency about what is being shared and with whom,” said Jeremy Tillman. “Users are increasingly turning to privacy tools, like Ghostery, to inform themselves about who is tracking on each page and allow them to ‘opt-out’ as they wish.”

By using the Ghostery browser extension for blocking trackers, you might be able to better protect your personal privacy and re-take control of your personal data. And, along the way, you might just speed up the performance of your web browser because you won’t be waiting for all those annoying tracker scripts that invisibly track you in the background to load.

The issues for personal privacy going forward

The Ghostery report confirms what many web users have long suspected: without the right tracking protection, there are a growing number of companies that are capable of tracking your every move online. As these trackers become more sophisticated and as online privacy policies largely go overlooked, it is becoming increasingly probable that companies that you’ve never heard of are able to construct fairly robust personal profiles about you.

Google tracks 60.3% of all Internet page loads around the world while Facebook tracks 27.1%. #privacy Click to Tweet

What happens to that data and information at that point, though, is still relatively unknown. Even Ghostery concedes that it can be a “big mystery” how exactly companies use all that data. And that’s the scary part – most people can live with the idea of Google and Facebook tracking them, but they certainly don’t want companies they don’t trust or have never heard of trying to buy information about them.

 

Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine