We know who you are and what news you read

… and we only want to improve your site experience and provide you personalised offers of the stuff that you really need.

Right, this is not about the NSA or other mass data retention initiatives by federal governments to fight terrorism. It is just about the common tracking and advertising mechanisms that are embedded in nearly every Web site that you visit every day. It is not only tracked what exactly you read, but also recorded where you went next and when you came back. And this is then aggregated into a quite personal profile of yourself and commercially exploited to offer you the best surfing and shopping experience. So to say Big Data at its best.

You are regularly clearing your browsing history and cookies to prevent this? No problem, your browser still reveals enough parameters to uniquely identify you, even with a clean browser cache. So next time you drop by, based on the so called browser’s fingerprint tracking can be easily continued. Curious? Just check Panopticlick by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Do not only note how unique your fingerprint is, but also what data is exposed by your browser after performing this test. That is shown below the uniqueness rate within the table. Any Web page can ask your browser for this information without notice. In this table you might for example also see the installed fonts on your computer. Don’t you have some special fonts installed that you need for work like those fancy corporate identity fonts? By this it is not only obvious that it is you again but also for whom you work.

You are just reading national news sites like the sueddeutsche.de that must hopefully will comply to national data privacy laws? Most of the cooperations that are offering embedded tracking and advertising tools are based in the US and so your tracking data is in the end stored and processed there. If you are lucky your favourite news site might mention this in its privacy statement or imprint. Not only the storage in a foreign country is problematic, but also the traversal of your quite personal data through other countries to finally get there. Why? Because other countries might have quite different views and legislation on how to deal with your private data.

There is an outstanding project out there that illustrates the tracking via news sites across country borders on a world map. It is called “Trackography” and was announced at the 31st Chaos Communication Congress (31C3). Select your country, choose your favourite news site and watch your personal data spreading around the globe. Additionally the project tries to enrich this with more details on what legislation applies to your data, how long it will be stored, if it will be sold to third parties etc.

As example: Your reading of a specific article at sueddeutsche.de will be tracked by at least 17 companies and traverse through Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, UK, Ireland and the US (according to trackography.org). Want another one? Your next read at lemonde.fr will be tracked by at least 41 companies and traverse through France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, UK, Irland, Russia and the US (according to trackography.org).

What to do?

Forget about activating the Do Not track (DNT) option within your browser though you should still do it to at least state your wish. According to the slides of the Trackography speakers only 3 out of 25 examined globally prevailing tracking companies care about support the DNT setting.

The Tactical Technology Collective – the organisation behind Trackography – has a useful guide on “What can I do to prevent being tracked when reading the news online?”. You might also want to check out their nice compilation about exploring your digital shadow.

Basically it already helps to enrich your browser with privacy enhancing plugins. Those prevent certain tracking techniques and services. Furthermore they add a bit more transparency on where and by whom you are being tracked. A recommendation is for example the Privacy Badger by the EFF. The difference of this one compared to other so called AdBlocker is explained here quite well.

You may end up with filling your browser with countless plugins whilst thereby sadly reducing the user experience on many Web sites to a minimum. The most suitable approach for a serious anonymous Web experience is probably the Tor Project and its offered TorBrowser bundle that is available for all platforms. Hopefully it is obvious that it is a bad idea to log into Facebook or your bank account via Tor if you want to remain anonymous (and because of some other more technical/security related reasons, that are off scope here). In case you are still curious on what to buy next, just use your current browser …

The swan song of paper-based newspapers appears yet to be written. Happy reading!