Software keeps track of third parties

STANFORD (US) — As the Federal Trade Commission pushes for a “do not track” mechanism to protect online consumer privacy, researchers are developing technology to make it work.

Stanford University graduate student Jonathan Mayer and post-doctoral researcher Arvind Narayanan, have created software that will let users opt out of third-party Web tracking and tell advertisers to stop following them online.

“People get creeped out by some of the advertising that happens online,” says Jonathan Mayer, who is working toward a PhD in computer science and a law degree.

“What concerns us is if you’re on a site like Amazon and you go looking for shoes, then someone tells a behavioral advertising service that you’ve been looking for shoes. So the next time you’re off on another shopping site, they’ll ask if you’re still looking for shoes. It feels invasive.”

The students’ idea for their Do Not Track program is fairly straightforward. Whenever a Web browser such as Firefox requests content or sends data using HTTP—the protocol that underlies the Web—it can optionally include extra information called a “header.” Do Not Track adds a header that signals the user does not want to be tracked.


“We always thought Do Not Track was a great technical idea, and it has a real impact that’s feasible,” says Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer, one of two researchers who created the software. (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

The technology can now be installed as an add-on for Firefox, and Mayer and Narayanan are working to make it operate with Chrome. Safari and Internet Explorer do not support their software.

Once the add-on is installed, the user doesn’t have to do anything else. Each time a Web site is visited, a do-not-track message is automatically sent.

The students, who have been working with John Mitchell, professor of computer science, are also creating ways to configure Web servers to honor their code.

Sending businesses and advertisers the message that you don’t want to be tracked is one thing. But getting them to respect your privacy is another—and it’s something that hinges on government enforcement.

“At the end of day, Congress would probably have to pass a law empowering the FTC to enforce this,” says Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project for Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

“The FTC could also say they are responsible for policing the Internet for deceptive and unfair practices, so if a consumer says he doesn’t want to be tracked and you track him, that can be seen as an unfair practice,” Calo says. “But to get the proper amount of teeth behind something like this, you really need Congress to act.”

The FTC’s recommendations—contained in a 79-page report that was approved unanimously by the five-member commission—are open to public comments through the end of January.

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