Free anti-tracking services catch on with privacy-minded consumers

By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY, 30Dec2011, P1B

Upon reading recent news stories about how Facebook tracks almost everywhere he goes on the Internet, Jim Kress grew outraged.

The business process consultant from Northville, Mich., subsequently learned Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Adobe and many other companies also exhaustively track his online activities. “I was very unnerved to discover the extent of all the other tracking that was done by nearly every site on the Web,” he says.

So Kress, 61, did some homework about a powerful class of online tools and services — most of them free — designed to block online behavioral tracking. He began using a new free service called Do Not Track Plus from Internet privacy start-up Abine.

Kress is part of a grass-roots movement that began to swell late in the year and is expected to continue growing in 2012: consumers taking online privacy into their own hands.

Suppliers of the best-known anti-tracking tools — Ghostery, Adblock Plus and TrackerBlock — all reported big jumps in usage in the second half of 2011. Ghostery, for instance, is being downloaded by 140,000 new users each month, with total downloads doubling to 4.5 million in the past 12 months, says Scott Meyer, CEO of parent company Evidon.

Adblock Plus has been downloaded more than 140 million times and is currently in daily use by more than 17 million Internet users worldwide, managing director Till Faida says. TrackerBlock usage continues to steadily rise, with total daily users numbering in the hundreds of thousands, says Jim Brock, founder of parent company PrivacyChoice.


Meanwhile, the goal of newcomer Abine, supplier of Do Not Track Plus, is to make anti-tracking as common as anti-virus for personal computing devices, says CEO Bill Kerrigan, who formerly headed anti-virus giant McAfee’s global consumer business.

Abine projects the number of Internet users in North America using anti-tracking tools and services will be 28.1 million by the end of 2012, up from 17.2 million today. “We want to drive the next level of adoption,” Kerrigan says. “No one is suggesting don’t use Facebook or Google. At the same time, we are suggesting there is a better way for consumers to experience those type of products without necessarily being tracked at every step they take in their digital life.”

Privacy hot potato

Online tracking has been a privacy hot potato for more than a decade. The relentless collection, correlation and selling of tracking data take place to help advertisers deliver more relevant ads to individual Web users.

Online tracking undergirds the burgeoning online display ad market, which is expected to swell 36% to $34.4 billion by the end of 2012, up from $25.3 billion in 2011, according to online marketing firm Zenith Optimedia.

Yet, despite this growing mountain of tracking data and the free flow of advertising dollars, the delivery of behaviorally targeted ads continues to be clunky, at best, says Aleecia McDonald, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. “Ad practices like retargeting, where you click on a pair of shoes once, and ads for the shoes follow you around the Web, make people wonder how that could have happened,” McDonald says.

Meanwhile, social networks and Web app developers are getting into the tracking game, exploring novel ways to derive fresh revenue from tracking data.

As digital shadowing escalates, so too have concerns about the erosion of traditional notions of privacy. Privacy advocates have long fretted that health companies, insurers, lenders, employers, lawyers, regulators and law enforcement could begin to acquire detailed profiles derived from tracking data to use unfairly against people.

Indeed, new research shows that as tracking technologies advance, and as more participants join the burgeoning tracking industry, the opportunities for privacy invasion are rising.

Facebook says it currently uses tracking data strictly to boost security and improve members’ online experience. But it also has sought patent protection for technology that includes a method to correlate tracking data with advertisements.

These developments have heightened concerns about the co-mingling of sensitive information that consumers often naively disclose at many websites they visit. The Federal Trade Commission and several lawmakers took major steps in 2011 toward curbing how far companies can go to collect and share tracking data.

The FTC called for a Do Not Track mechanism that would enable Internet users to request not to be tracked. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., proposed a Do Not Track bill that would compel companies to heed such requests.

But tracking and online advertising companies lobbied intensively to maintain industry self-policing as the status quo. They’ve argued that unregulated tracking is necessary to help pay for free Web content and services that consumers have come to expect.

“Basic tracking of a user’s displayed behavior is an effective way for publishers to earn more revenue for their ad space and for advertisers to see greater returns on their marketing spends,” says Will Riegel, a New York City-based tracking data analyst.

Evidon CEO Meyer elaborates on the political posturing in this video:

As this debate extends into the new year, consumer backlash appears to be gaining grass-roots momentum. More and more average Web users, such as Doug Toombs, 25, a quality assurance engineer from Cambridge, Ontario, are discovering and using available anti-tracking technologies while the global privacy debate continues.

Toombs recently started using Do Not Track Plus and marveled at how the tool automatically blocked more than 13,000 attempts to track his online activities in the course of a few weeks. “Being able to counteract it (tracking) absolutely made me feel much better,” Toombs says. “People need to fight back and not get bullied around by these big companies that think they can do anything they want.”

Flaws and improvements

Anti-tracking technologies have been around for several years, but most tools and services — including the anti-tracking features built directly into Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Mozilla’s Firefox, Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari Web browsers — have earned a reputation for being complicated and confusing.

A study titled “Why Johnny Can’t Opt Out,” published last month by Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab, found serious usability flaws in nine top anti-tracking systems.

“Our research found that these tools are difficult for consumers to use properly,” says CyLab professor Lorrie Faith Cranor, who conducted the research.

One complexity, for instance, is that anti-tracking tools must be configured to work with specific browsers. Another is that if you try to use multiple tools, things can go haywire.

Even so, more consumers appear to be looking for direct ways to control tracking, Stanford’s McDonald says.

“A sizable proportion of Internet users want to protect their privacy,” she says. “Better tools and more knowledge would do nothing if there were no demand for privacy.”

In response, anti-tracking software makers are hustling to deliver more accessible and flexible systems.

The latest version of Ghostery, for instance, is very quick and simple to download. And what the consumer gets is a blocking mechanism that is much more effective than simply issuing Do Not Track requests and hoping companies obey, as the FTC has called for, Evidon’s Meyer says.

Ghostery automatically blocks all tracking mechanisms issued by several hundred companies on an extensive list that includes two of the most expansive tracking networks: Google’s DoubleClick and Microsoft’s Media Network.

It also stops Facebook from amassing data about every Web page you visit that has a Facebook Like button or the Facebook Connect log-on service.

Ghostery’s blacklist is continually updated with help from a panel of some 300,000 of its users who voluntarily permit Evidon to continually analyze fresh attempts at tracking. “People love being part of the Ghostery community,” says Meyer. “It’s a very powerful group of sophisticated Web users who like having direct feedback into the product.”

TrackerBlock and Do Not Track Plus also rely on continually updated lists to block tracking mechanisms issued by ad networks and social networks, as does Adblock Plus, the most widely downloaded tool.

Adblock Plus is best-known for its ability to block online advertisements from being visually displayed on Web pages. But it can also be configured to block tracking mechanisms, and more users are setting it up that way, Faida says. “Our tool provides easy control over who is allowed to track you,” Faida says. “We are aware that some people have trouble using Adblock Plus as a tracking blocker, and therefore are going to make it much easier to use Adblock Plus as a privacy and security tool.”

In control of your privacy

Meanwhile, average consumers who’ve already figured out how to use the current anti-tracking tools say the trouble is well worth it.

William Morris, 55, a custom car restorer and home remodeler from Elk City, Okla., discovered that the performance of his older Windows XP desktop PC improved considerably once he curtailed the tracking communications constantly taking place in the background on his browser.

One evening, Morris spent two and a half hours researching a physics topic online, keeping an eye on the tally of tracking attempts blocked by Do Not Track Plus. The total: 4,076. “It’s unbelievable that there are that many entities out there on the Internet poking their nose into whatever I’m doing,” Morris says.


Kress, the consultant from Michigan, says the main benefit he reaps “is knowing that my browsing and Internet activities are much more private and are not being pirated by a collection of miscreants intent upon benefiting themselves, at my expense, without my knowledge or permission.”

Many users of TrackerBlock feel the same way. In a recent PrivacyChoice survey of 668 TrackerBlock users, 87% of the respondents said the reason they use an anti-tracking tool is because they do not want anyone collecting data about what they do online.

Consumers generally feel more comfortable being in control of who gets to analyze their browsing habits, PrivacyChoice founder Brock says.

“That feeling of control is something that the industry needs to deliver in order for behavioral targeting to be a sustainable marketing method,” Brock says. “The more you honor consumer preferences, the more consumers will be willing to accept tracking technologies.”

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