New Research/Report Provides “Archaeological Study” About Use of Third-Party Tracking Technology on the Web
From the University of Washington:
At the USENIX Security Conference in Austin, Texas, a team of University of Washington researchers on Aug. 12 presented the first-ever comprehensive analysis of third-party web tracking across three decades and a new tool, TrackingExcavator, which they developed to extract and analyze tracking behaviors on a given web page. They saw a four-fold increase in third-party tracking on top sites from 1996 to 2016, and mapped the growing complexity of trackers stretching back decades.
“Third-party tracking started quite early in the history of the web,” said Adam Lerner, a graduate student in the UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering who presented the team’s findings at the conference. “People are becoming more concerned about the potential impact of third-party web tracking, but we lacked a comprehensive history of how trackers — and the types of information they collect — have evolved over time.”
Lerner and fellow doctoral student Anna Kornfeld Simpson set out to fill the gaps in our understanding of tracking, working with computer science and engineering assistant professor Franziska Roesner and associate professor Tadayoshi Kohno of the UW Security and Privacy Laboratory.
Read the Complete News Release/Highlights from U. of Washington
More From IEEE Spectrum
For comparison, a study by Princeton computer science researcher Arvind Narayanan and colleagues that was released in January looked at one million websites and found that top websites host an average of 25 to 30 third parties. Chris Jay Hoofnagle, a privacy and law scholar at UC Berkeley, says his own research has found that 36 of the 100 most popular sites send more than 150 requests each, with one site logging more than 300. The definition of a tracker or a third-party request, and the methods used to identify them, may also vary between analyses.
“It’s not so much that I would invest a lot of confidence in the idea that there were X number of trackers on any given site,” Hoofnagle says of the University of Washington team’s results. “Rather, it’s the trend that’s important.”
They found that activity on popular websites by third-party trackers—such as advertisers, analytics engines and social media widgets—has increased four-fold over the past two decades. Tracking has also become more complex, evolving from simple cookies and pop-up windows to more sophisticated methods.
Read the Complete Article
Tracking Excavator: Uncovering Tracking in the Web’s Past (Project Website)
Research Article: “Internet Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Trackers: An Archaeological Study of Web Tracking from 1996 to 2016” (17 pages; PDF)
See Also: Princeton Study Mentioned Above:
- Conference Paper: “Cookies That Give You Away: The Surveillance Implications of Web Tracking” (May 23, 2015)
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Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.