What They Know About You

online tracking
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Do you know that when you visit any website, the website collects personal, identifiable information about you? Did you know that advertisers that post ads on those websites can use that information to track you as you surf the Internet? Most of us don’t really have any idea what information is being collected about us and what websites are doing with this information. What you don’t know may surprise and frighten you, because websites can identify you in many different ways, even if you take steps to protect your identity.

online tracking

How Websites Identify You: Cookies and Web Bugs

When you visit any website, the website’s server automatically collects information about you, including your IP address, web browser, type of operating system, webpage visited, referring page, and the visit time. A cookie is used to keep track of you as you visit various pages on a website. A cookie is a text file that is installed on your machine which usually contains a unique identifying number.

Many websites are supported financially by advertising, and usually these ads are not served directly from the website itself, but from advertisers. These advertisers place a cookie on your machine. Since advertisers place ads on multiple sites, this cookie allows the advertiser to observe your behavior across many sites.

In addition to cookies, websites also use web bugs to track you. Web bugs are a type of third-party tracking that is completely invisible to the user. Web bugs allow third parties that do not serve ads to place cookies on your browser and track your navigation across the web. Web bugs are embedded in a web page’s HTML code, and are typically a small graphic embedded in the page that monitors who is reading the page. Advertisers use web bugs to create a profile of what sites you are visiting. This personal profile allows the network to track your behavior across many sites over time. Web bugs can track the IP address of your computer, the web page content, the visit time, your browser type, and previously set cookie values.

Even Your IP Address and Browser Information Identify You

One thing you can to protect your online privacy is to disable third-party cookies, or installing a program like Ghostery which blocks all third party content, including web bugs. Removing cookies prevents the tracker from identifying you as an individual user.

However, web bugs can still track your navigation data. It turns out that even your IP address and browser information, such as version numbers, is unique enough to identify your computer and thus track your movement around the Internet.

What Do Websites Know about You?

There are websites out there that analyze your Internet connection, IP address, and browser information and displays some of the information websites can find out about you when you visit them. One is the Privacy.net Analyzer.

This report displays the following information about you:

  • Your browser type and operating system.
  • What hidden information your web browser sends websites.
  • Your browser security, if any.
  • Whether or not you have a firewall installed.
  • What browser plug-ins you have installed.
  • What country you are located in.
  • Your IP address, and who owns the domain of your IP address.
  • Who manages your IP address.

What Websites Do With Your Information

Websites use this information they compile about you for various purposes, such as developing and improving their website. Or they can customize a website to your individual taste. An e-commerce site such as Amazon can make product recommendations based on previous purchases or deliver targeted ads. Many of these uses are benefits actively sought by consumers.

However, websites also sell personal data about you to third parties. Websites share this data with marketing partners or corporate affiliates, which means that your behavior may be profiled not only by sites you have visited, but also by other entities with which these sites share this information. Many website’s privacy policies stated that they do not share data with third parties, but many allow third parties to track user behavior directly through the use of web bugs.

Websites also purchase more data about you to build better profiles. Some companies, such as ChoicePoint, exclusively sell personal information. These data brokers acquire information from phone books, court documents, voter registries, and other public records. These brokers have websites where much of this information can be found and purchased by anyone. About a quarter of the top 50 websites expressly stated that they buy information about users from third parties to supplement data they collected directly from their users.

In addition, social websites such as Facebook send personal data to advertising companies without your consent. The information typically contains usernames or ID numbers tied to personal profiles being viewed when users click on ads. The information is then sent to these companies, and can be used to gather additional information such as occupations, real names, family members and home addresses.

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.