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Monday, December 6, 2010

Sniffing Out Your Browser History...

Your browser leaves more than a trail of cookies as you blissfully surf the internet.  Inside each browser is a complete set of structures that are used to affect what you see on the screen based on where you've been.

Everyone should be familiar with the "back button" which takes you from the page you are on to the page you were on before.  However, there are a lot more complex things stored in your browser than just the last page you were on.  For example, if you click on any of the links in my blogs your Firefox browser will show that link in purple from that point on - prior to that will display as blue (unless you've bothered to change how Firefox handles this).

While you might think that this colorful past-link information displayed on screen from your browser history is safe from prying eyes you would, unfortunately, be wrong.  Deep inside the JavaScript in your browser is a data structure that holds the past links you've visited.   Normally this information cannot be extracted by a web site directly - your browser history is private and hidden from direct access by web pages.  But by inserting invisible links into a web page and having JavaScript verify their color one can determine if the browser has previously those links.

This mechanism for probing into your private peccadillo's came to light in this recent lawsuit.  David Pitner and Jared Reagan have filed a class action lawsuit against YouPorn and Midstream Media International, NV, a Netherlands corporation for using exactly this scheme to pry into their browser history.

This story and others like have lead a variety of people and companies to create do-not-track-type features for browsers. But this really doesn't go far enough for some people.

Another interesting aspect of this is that browser companies, including Mozilla and Microsoft, are being pressured by the ad industry to not provide "do-not-track" functions.  That's right, even mighty Microsoft has bowed to the pressure of advertisers as noted in the WSJ.  Mozilla also killed a "do not track" facility for Firefox at the behest of the ad industry.

Why is this so?  Why are people so willing to have their every move tracked down to the number of seconds they spend view a given ad or web page.  And, most importantly, what are we getting in exchange for this?

Part of why this goes on would be that most people have no idea that this is going on in the first place.  Most computer uses have no clue what JavaScript is, what cookies are, or anything else technical about their computers.  The internet tracking and ad has been steadily growing for the last twenty years - quietly minding your business - without attracting much notice until fairly recently.

Another part of this is that we are constantly told that without advertising our lives would be crap.  Crap in the sense that no web company would be able to run its business or make money without the annoying targeted ads that appear everywhere.  Personally I don't buy this argument.  You, like me, probably pay for your ISP - whether its Comcast, Versizon, or anyone else.  I also pay for cellphone service.  But that doesn't mean I should see an ad on my cellphone every time I open it up.

The operational assumption is that companies like, for example or, could not operate without these highly targeted ads being constantly displayed or without this data to target their offerings to you.  Again, I don't buy this.  I am certainly willing to pay for things I want and I would imagine other people would feel this way as well.  My life is crap with the stupid dancing mortgage lady on - crap to the point of me switching to another site just to avoid it.

Another aspect of this which I find especially annoying is that on most pages the ads load first.  So the content I am browsing to see loads last.  This means that before, for example, my weather map loads, I see the dancing mortgage queen.

Part of this is people what to be "in" and "cool" and whatever else they call it these days.  So if I'm twelve years old I can click on ads for the latest clothes or makeup or hair styles.  This is old news to advertisers, but collecting data in effectively real-time is not.  Previously style changed relatively slowly - magazine and TV ads took time to enter the collective mainstream consciousness.  Not so today.

The on-line ad business is a rapidly growing $25 billion dollar business - which is why I think people are afraid to push back.

Tracking you is also legal and will remain so unless enough people complain.

Because of this case and many more just like it, the FTC has become interested on on-line privacy.  This has caused the industry to scurry around and create a facade that they themselves are addressing the problem.  Visiting this site tells you how the triangle-i logo (top of this article) will give you choice in this matter.  There's even a link to a beta "opt out" page.

Now how stupid do they really think we are?

Do you really believe that that foreign companies like YouPorn are simply going to follow along with your choice on the "opt out" page?  Its clear that advertising companies already go to great lengths to track you - including developing nefarious software for exactly that purpose.  No, I think this will merely be a facade for fools to click on to create the illusion of opt out, similar to the national telemarketing "do not call" database.

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