Facebook, Buzzfeed, and the Huffington Post are just a few of the great websites on the Internet, but what would you think of them if they were sharing your data? According to a new study published in the International Journal of Communication, nine out of 10 websites are sending users’ data to third-party sources, usually without their permission or even knowledge.
Tim Libert, a University of Pennsylvania privacy researcher, conducted the study using an open source software of his own devising called webXray, which he’s also used to analyze trackers installed on health and pornography websites. He found that not only were the overwhelming majority of sites siphoning data, but that they were also sharing it everywhere.
“Sites that leak user data contact an average of nine external domains, indicating that users may be tracked by multiple entities in tandem,” he wrote.
In layman’s terms, it means that when you visit a site — like Netflix or Twitter, perhaps — it’ll likely forward your user data to nine other websites. On the bright side, these sites may be as harmless as Google, Facebook, and WordPress.
“There is one web [that] users sees in their browsers, but there is a much larger hidden web that is looking back at them,” he told Motherboard. “I always find it funny when old TV shows will have a gag where somebody on the screen can ‘see’ into your living room — it’s obviously silly with old technology, but that’s really how the web works! For every two eyes looking at a screen there are probably ten or more looking back at them.”
For the average webizen, this means that there’s a 90% chance hidden third parties will obtain information about their browsing.
“Our research shows that most internet users recognize and somewhat begrudgingly accept the fact that their personal data is being collected and used by the sites they visit,” says John Diaz, Vice President of Business Development and Operations, On Top Visibility. “While that may have a chilling “big brother is watching” feeling associated with it, most also believe that the net effect is benign and in some cases may even benefit them by making their online experience more personalized. Right or wrong the fact is that society is being desensitized when it comes to online privacy.”
So how then is a person supposed to be able to browse the Internet anonymously? According to Libert, their best bet is Tor. According to its website, Tor is “free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”
Even then, the user would also have to take other necessary precautions as well to protect data.
“Tor is pretty much your best bet,” Libert told Motherboard, “with the provision you don’t log into any accounts (e.g. Facebook, Gmail, etc.) as then you have identified yourself and may be subject to tracking.”