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How your visits to sites are tracked

Sruthi Krishnan

Many users seem unaware of who can see their data and to what purpose they are used


CHENNAI: When Aparna (name unchanged), a lawyer, typed her name in Spokeo's search box, the results shocked her. The address where she had stayed in the United States — a piece of information she thought was not public — was there on the map for anyone to see.

Spokeo (www.spokeo.com) says it is “not your grandma's phonebook.” It is true because the site does something your grandma's phonebook could never dream of — it mines the net collecting public information on a person, stitches the scattered bits of data together to weave a comprehensive snapshot of the person. You can obtain such a dossier on virtually anyone in the online world for as low as Rs.150 a month. Pipl, 123People, and Intelius are sites similar to Spokeo.

“Informed consent,” is the key to sharing information online, says Balachander Krishnamurthy, a researcher with AT&T Labs Research, U.S., whose interests include Internet privacy and online social networks. Though the first step to informed consent is awareness, many users seem unaware of who can see their data and to what purpose such information is used for.

For instance, your visits to many popular websites are tracked. This means someone else (other than the site you are visiting) knows what you do there. Such companies, called aggregators, track your online behaviour to help marketing efforts.

These aggregators have been around for a long time, but most users are unaware of the current reach and enormity of this industry. A growing population (of around two billion users now) visiting popular sites tracked over many years — you do the arithmetic. Interestingly, most of the tracking and aggregation of this multi-billion dollar industry is done by a handful of companies.

In a 2008 paper, Dr. Krishnamurthy and Craig Wills of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, U.S., reported that the penetration of the top 10 aggregators in tracking user-viewing habits across a large number of popular websites grew from 40 per cent in 2005 to 70 per cent. “Things have gotten worse as there has only been more aggregation,” he says.

The recent figure stands at 84 per cent, Dr. Krishnamurthy says, and at the top is Google with a penetration of 75 per cent.

Dr. Krishnamurthy and Dr. Wills found that when these aggregators tracked you on an online social networking site, your profile information such as age, address, photographs, and relationships, could “leak” to the aggregators. This they reported in a 2009 paper. So it is possible for the same set of aggregators to access both — data on online viewing habits and profile information. This implies these aggregators have the potential to link the two. The existing privacy protection techniques have limitations in preventing privacy diffusion, according to these researchers. So the answer to whether you have a choice in deciding who sees your data seems to be no in many cases.

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