Security Corner

Feb 27 2011   3:45PM GMT

The Invisible Web and What You Can Do About It

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun

There’s an invisible web that underlies everything we see. These things are invisible web – tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages in order to get an idea of your online behavior. In other words, trackers. The debate rages on about the use of trackers by online advertisers and many people simply do not want to have their online activities tracked. But, what can one do about it?

I suggest that you check out Ghostery.com. They have a great little Firefox add-on that is free to download and use – plus you have their promise that Ghostery will never be used for advertising. The utility looks at the invisible web, tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity. Here’s what they do next:

After showing you who’s tracking you, Ghostery also gives you a chance to learn more about each company it identifies. How they describe themselves, a link to their privacy policies, and a sampling of pages where we’ve found them are just a click away.

Then, it give you options so you can take whatever actions you want: block scripts from companies that you don’t trust, delete local shared objects, and even block images and iframes. That’s putting you pretty much back in control.

To be honest, I don’t much care about being tracked and marketed to in a targeted way by reputable companies; however, I do perform security research which sometimes leads me into the clandestine and dangerous areas of the web.

Ghostery currently tracks 486 web bugs & 338 cookies that you can block selectively, so I think that’s got a lot ground covered. But what’s really interesting about Ghostery is the information they give you on each company/method they have listed. Let me just take one example that I bet you don’t know about: Facebook Beacon. Here’s an excerpt from Facebook’s description:

Facebook Beacon is a way for you to bring actions you take online into Facebook. Beacon works by allowing affiliate websites to send stories about actions you take to Facebook. Here’s how that process happens: If you are logged in to Facebook and visit a Beacon Affiliate, an action you take (like writing a review or purchasing an item), may trigger that website to want to publish a story to Facebook.

Give Ghostery a test drive and see what you learn. I promise that it’s going to give me fodder for many articles about the Invisible Web, so stay tuned.

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  • tjhooker
    With Google Chrome and Microsoft Internet Explorer both adding do not track implementations you would think that online retailers would build their sites to enable shopping by users that block tracking ads and analytics.Walmart.com will not let a shopper "Proceed to Checkout" if they block Omniture (Adobe Digital Marketing). Clicking on "Proceed to Checkout" just doesn't do anything.  Target.com immediately opens a popup window when the main site window opens that states if you want to use their site you must enable cookies when really all that is happening is that RichRelevance tracking is being blocked.Both of these retailers require customers to allow tracking if you want to shop their site. It's not right that these websites are designed in such a way that the shopping experience is interrupted if I don't want to be tracked. Maybe they will wake up if and when more of us refuse to shop their site until they stop this nonsense.
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