I've been using ad-blocking and 'do-not-track' software for some months. It's been eye-opening to see just how many Web sites and software packages are trying to track what I'm doing and where I'm going on the Internet. Now an article in USA Today gives more details of the problem. Here's an excerpt.
Online tracking has been a privacy hot potato for more than a decade. The relentless collection, correlation and selling of tracking data take place to help advertisers deliver more relevant ads to individual Web users.
Online tracking undergirds the burgeoning online display ad market, which is expected to swell 36% to $34.4 billion by the end of 2012, up from $25.3 billion in 2011, according to online marketing firm Zenith Optimedia.
Yet, despite this growing mountain of tracking data and the free flow of advertising dollars, the delivery of behaviorally targeted ads continues to be clunky, at best, says Aleecia McDonald, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "Ad practices like retargeting, where you click on a pair of shoes once, and ads for the shoes follow you around the Web, make people wonder how that could have happened," McDonald says.
Meanwhile, social networks and Web app developers are getting into the tracking game, exploring novel ways to derive fresh revenue from tracking data.
Facebook says it currently uses tracking data strictly to boost security and improve members' online experience. But it also has sought patent protection for technology that includes a method to correlate tracking data with advertisements.
These developments have heightened concerns about the co-mingling of sensitive information that consumers often naively disclose at many websites they visit. The Federal Trade Commission and several lawmakers took major steps in 2011 toward curbing how far companies can go to collect and share tracking data.
The FTC called for a Do Not Track mechanism that would enable Internet users to request not to be tracked. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., proposed a Do Not Track bill that would compel companies to heed such requests.
But tracking and online advertising companies lobbied intensively to maintain industry self-policing as the status quo. They've argued that unregulated tracking is necessary to help pay for free Web content and services that consumers have come to expect.
"Basic tracking of a user's displayed behavior is an effective way for publishers to earn more revenue for their ad space and for advertisers to see greater returns on their marketing spends," says Will Riegel, a New York City-based tracking data analyst.
As this debate extends into the new year, consumer backlash appears to be gaining grass-roots momentum. More and more average Web users, such as Doug Toombs, 25, a quality assurance engineer from Cambridge, Ontario, are discovering and using available anti-tracking technologies while the global privacy debate continues.
Toombs recently started using Do Not Track Plus and marveled at how the tool automatically blocked more than 13,000 attempts to track his online activities in the course of a few weeks. "Being able to counteract it (tracking) absolutely made me feel much better," Toombs says. "People need to fight back and not get bullied around by these big companies that think they can do anything they want."
. . .
Meanwhile, average consumers who've already figured out how to use the current anti-tracking tools say the trouble is well worth it.
William Morris, 55, a custom car restorer and home remodeler from Elk City, Okla., discovered that the performance of his older Windows XP desktop PC improved considerably once he curtailed the tracking communications constantly taking place in the background on his browser.
One evening, Morris spent two and a half hours researching a physics topic online, keeping an eye on the tally of tracking attempts blocked by Do Not Track Plus. The total: 4,076. "It's unbelievable that there are that many entities out there on the Internet poking their nose into whatever I'm doing," Morris says.
There's more at the link, including details of several of the better anti-tracking software solutions out there.
I use (and recommend) three free anti-tracking and ad-blocking programs: Adblock Plus, Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus. I also use the BetterPrivacy add-on for Firefox to delete so-called 'flash cookies'. I've found that no one package or program does the job completely, but by running these four in combination, I probably cover most of the threats out there.