Home' Technology Review : March April 2011 Contents www.technologyreview.com
browser, by exploiting the way Web links
are displayed in a different color once they
have been clicked. Last summer, research-
ers at Stanford University’s Security Lab
presented a paper comparing the private-
browsing modes of the four most popular
Web browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox,
Chrome, and Safari. They found ways to
defeat these modes, including a new type
of cookie that can be accessed via Adobe’s
ubiquitous Flash plug-in—meaning that
“private” browsing is never really private.
The FTC’s solution to this problem is
“Do Not Track.” The idea is loosely mod-
eled on the agency’s popular “Do Not Call”
list. Instead of a centralized list of consum-
ers who don’t want to be tracked, however,
the report envisions a browser setting that
would transmit an anonymity request to Web
advertisers. If behaviorally targeted adver-
tisements really are beneficial to consumers,
most people will leave the feature switched
off. Otherwise, websites better get used to
$1.98 per thousand ads viewed.
Browser makers have started building
tracking controls for their software. Google
recently released an add-on for Chrome
called Keep My Opt-Outs, and Microsoft
has announced a similar feature for Inter-
net Explorer 9 called Tracking Protection.
Mozilla promises to add similar functions
to Firefox. These features all tell websites
when someone doesn’t want to be tracked.
But it’s still up to companies to honor this
request. And, unsurprisingly, the idea of
“Do Not Track” is fiercely opposed by the
advertising industry, which warns it would
hamstring a booming business—especially
if enabled in browsers by default.
The real problem with “Do Not Track,”
however, is that it derives from an earlier
understanding of Web advertising—that ads
are distributed by advertising networks to
news sites, search engines, and other destina-
tions that don’t necessarily need to know who
you are. Nowadays many popular websites
are unusable unless you let them track you.
Take Facebook: the site has seen explo-
sive growth in advertising revenue precisely
because it tracks its users’ interests in great
detail. There’s no way to turn off tracking and
still let your friends see your status updates.
Thanks to Facebook Connect, which lets you
log on to other websites with your Facebook
credentials, and the “Like” button, which
sends links from external Web pages back to
your Facebook profile, Facebook now tracks
you across the Web. Or, more accurately,
you tell Facebook where you are.
Smart phones will accelerate this trend.
Already, many phone apps deliver ads based
on your GPS-determined position. Future
ads might depend on the applications that
you’ve installed, whom you’ve called, even
the contents of your address book—all infor-
mation that’s there for the taking. With the
popular geography-based social-network
game Foursquare, the only way to avoid
tracking is not to play.
There is a way to resolve this conundrum,
and it’s disappointing that the FTC report
ignores it. The report recommends continu-
ing to try to limit what information compa-
nies can get, instead of limiting what they
can do with information once they have it.
In this age of Facebook, Google, and Four-
square, what we actually need are simple
and enforceable policies limiting the reten-
tion and use of consumer data. These could
be dictated by the government or, conceiv-
ably, built into browsers so that users could
decide on the specifics. For example, you
could tell Google that it may archive your
searches forever, to help improve its service,
but that it has to anonymize them after six
months. You could tell Facebook it can keep
your posts indefinitely but can use them for
advertising purposes only for a year.
Unfortunately, any kind of reform will
face stiff opposition from vested interests.
But if the government wants to defend us
from privacy-trampling advertising, it needs
more than “Do Not Track”: it needs to con-
sider limitations on the use of Web data.
siMson L. GARfinkeL is A ReseARcheR And AuthoR
bAsed in ARLinGton, ViRGiniA. his ReseARch incLudes
woR k on coMPuteR foR e nsics, PR iVAcy, And Pe R s onAL
infoRMAtion MAnAGeMent. he is A contRibutinG editoR
to TECHNOLOGY R EVIEW.
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