Find out if you are being tracked on the Web

Author: Nola Young

Have you ever researched information on a travel Web site only to discover that for the next few months you start to receive several unsolicited e-mails related to travel? You may have thought it was just a coincidence. Not likely. Chances are you were being tracked by a tracking network.
Sites that belong to tracking networks receive your information even when you visit other sites.

What personal information is at risk will vary but by-and-large the information that is being tracked by the tracking network programs are, what pages you visit, what you shop for and what you buy. These programs can also track information you access on topics such as financial, medical, or career. Your IP address (your computers unique address) and geographical information and even your chat room activity can be logged.

Once this information is logged in a database, it can be sold or negotiated to other companies for profit.

I’ve always been a proponent for Web site statistic reporting or traffic analyzers which can be used as marketing guidelines for knowing what pages your visitors were interested in and how many times they may have clicked on a particular topic however; I am against having my surfing habits given or sold to companies for profit.

There is no question that knowing what our customers want is a key component in knowing how to market to them. It is in my mind however, infringing on my right to privacy when my personal information is shared with others without my knowledge.

So how do these companies do this and why don’t I know that I am being tracked. Two ways tracking is accomplished is by the use of cookies and by Web bugs.

Cookies are electronic tags, which can be placed on your hard drive when you visit some Web sites, when a banner ad appears on your screen or when you sign up for an online service. These cookies which remain resident in your computer identify you so that you can be tracked later on. These cookies gather information about you as you surf and this information can be sold to other companies. In the example mentioned above, your information would have been sold to other travel companies hence the sudden arrival of e-mail related to travel.

So why isn’t there legislation that bans the use of cookies?

The presence of cookies can be beneficial to both the programmer and to the visitor. They help programmers to better manage content by identifying what is effective. They allow programmers to learn about your past online behaviour and to recognize which ads bring visitors to their site and to understand how surfers are visiting different areas of their site. For example, shopping programs are developed with cookies. The cookie method helps the programmer remember who

you are and what’s in your shopping cart. The programmer can then manage the site by appealing to your buying habits. Traffic-log cookies also allow advertisers to know whether or not they are getting the most out of their advertising dollar.

Cookies help consumers by storing passwords and other sign-on information allowing the visitor an opportunity to not have to think as much. The presence of cookies also helps to provide the “warm fuzzies” that are otherwise missing online. When you walk into a store, you are greeted by a sales clerk and the personal interaction makes you feel good. That same feeling can be recreated online when you receive a personal message on screen while revisiting a site. You feel good when that site acknowledges who you are because it recognizes you. That is made possible because your information was shared or tracked through a cookie.

Another technology, referred to as Web bugs or Web beacons also exists. Web bugs are 1 pixel images whose job is to act like a beacon that are not visible to the visitor. They help Web site developers and advertisers track visitors’ whereabouts. Unlike cookies, they are invisible and can’t be caught by anti-cookie filters. Web bugs can track surfers in areas where banner ads are not present and where people are not expecting to be tracked.

Web bugs can also be used in e-mail. A company can send a bulk HTML e-mail newsletter that contains Web bugs. These “bugs” will determine how many people read the letter, how often they read it, and whether they forward it to anyone. The e-mail would include a coded ID or encrypted e-mail address to track when you open it.

Are Web bugs and cookies bad? On their own, Web bugs aren’t a serious problem. However, when combined with cookies they can be used to collect personal information on surfing habits. And there really isn’t anything wrong with cookies or with data collection if it is consented to. It is your right to be notified if a site is tracking you. You should be able to consent to this data collection and if you don’t then advertisers and programmers should be barred from collecting and using it.

IDcide, a New York based Internet privacy company, offers a free software application called Privacy Companion. It lets you know when you are being tracked on the Net and by whom. It also allows you to decide how much data you want to share and how much privacy you want to maintain. IDcide was founded on the premise that consumers should be able to create a balance between privacy and personalization for themselves.

To learn more about this software, I downloaded it and used it to become aware of who is tracking me on the Web. The interface is simple, it consists of 3 icons which are placed on the top of my browser window. When the icon image of an eye opens, I know the site I am visiting is watching me. When the image of a group of eyes open, I know I am being tracked by a network of companies. I was amazed by how much of this activity is going on and I seriously suggest that you try this software which can be downloaded from their Web site

For next month’s column I will invite local technology lawyer Joe Mattes to discuss some legal issues pertaining to this topic.

Nola Young is the president of KW Digital Solutions. Send your comments or questions by email or call 519-741-7641.

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