By Christopher Caulfield | Information Systems & Connective Media Student, Cornell Tech
By now most people should notice when surfing the internet, they see advertisements of products they were previously viewing on another website. This experience is an example of how web browsing information is used to generate personalized advertisements. Essentially, this is a form of power, the choice to gather data about you. This was this was one of the focus areas in Chris Wiggins and Matt Jones presentation on “Data Literacy and Ethics in the Lab”. Whether your data is for advertising or not, many websites are tracking user activity while on web pages. A matter of fact, researchers at Princeton have found over 400 of the world’s most popular websites track every keystroke made.
From Princeton’s research most websites are using “session replay” scripts to analyse customers interactions on the web. These scripts are recording every step made such as clicks, typed input, and scrolls. This includes cases when typed input is being entered into a form field and the “submit” button has not been selected yet, the replay script already have it recorded. After recording, the information is then sent to a third-party server for full analysis. In addition to websites applying these session replay scripts on their platform, customers are not acknowledged this is happening. Some companies are even enabling these activity recordings to be correlated with the customer’s personal identity, their name and email address for example.
Session replay scripts are not the only example recording our information, odds are high one of your favorite mobile applications may be involved too. Many mobile based applications use third-party libraries to gather information such as user engagement, connecting to social media, and displaying ads. A few well known third-party tracking services are are Google Analytics, Facebook Graph API, or Crashlytics. It has been found 7 in 10 smartphone apps are involved in sharing personal data with these services.
Ultimately this may be leading to a question of, is there a way to reduce the amount of information these services are receiving from us? Unfortunately, there is no software to completely remove any privacy issues. Two recommended web based privacy tools are Tor and Ghostery. Other general best practices are: frequently clearing your browser data and blocking cookies.