The death of privacy

TANYA THOMAS | | Updated on: Jan 22, 2018

Is someone listening illegally to phone calls again? Stalking me on the web?

Bingo. It’s the web. And really, privacy there is a joke, according to new research.

What does it say?

“If you visit any of the top one million sites, there’s a ninety percent chance largely hidden parties will get information about your browsing.”

So deleting my browser history doesn’t work?

No, and it was never meant to.

What about telling websites not to track me?

Ah yes, the ‘Do Not Track Me’ setting. It doesn’t matter if you tick it or not — most websites just ignore your choice anyway.

How bad does this get?

Tim Libert, a privacy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who monitored the behaviour of websites, sums up his study this way — the average web user doesn’t know that “for every two eyes looking at a screen, there are probably ten or more looking back at them”, he told the digital news magazine, Motherboard .


Yes, and shocking, considering the scale of the invasion. Libert’s study, published in the International Journal of Communication , says that of the one million popular websites he studied, 9 in 10 leak user data without the user’s permission or knowledge, 6 in 10 spawn third-party cookies, and 8 in 10 load Javascript code from external parties into users’ computers. The biggest culprit is Google, whose Google Analytics software is embedded into 46 per cent of all sites on the web.

What about Facebook?

That’s even more brazen. The biggest social media website says in its terms of service that users will be tracked even if they’re not using the site but are logged in, “to deliver, secure and understand product services and ads”.

How does this tracking work?

For every service that you think you’re getting for free on the internet, the service provider allows third parties (mostly advertisers) to embed hidden software in their website code that allows the third party to track the behaviour of every site visitor. Think of this as ad networks that lie just below the surface of the web that you are browsing. These networks are constantly collecting information about your web behaviour, collating it, and selling it to those who would like to sell you stuff. But also to, say a government, that wants to install mass surveillance systems.

How was the research conducted?

For the study, Libert used his own software webXray to see how websites are accessing and sharing user data, a technique he had used to understand the same on porn and health websites earlier. Only now, you’re just as vulnerable reading the news online.

Does this apply to the app universe as well?

Of course, with previous studies showing that app developers mine your data and cheerfully sell them to advertisers or other third parties, with iOS app developers tending to be slightly better behaved that the ones on the Android platform.

Is there any hope then?

The shining light in this web of deceit, so to say, is Twitter. Libert says the company actually respects users’ wishes when they say Do Not Track. The other option, Libert says, is to use Tor, a free software that lets you access the web truly anonymously by repeatedly encrypting all information about you and making it inaccessible to an outsider. But it’s slower than the regular internet, and therein lies the rub — would you rather speed, or privacy?

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Published on November 11, 2015
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