Computer Scientists Reveal History of Third-Party Web Tracking

For over two decades, consumers have used the internet to research, shop, make friends, find dates and learn about the world with the click of a mouse or a few keystrokes. But as we've surfed and tweeted, third-party watchers have also been watching -- and learning -- about us.

When you open a website, your browser doesn't just talk to the site you've intended to visit. The site may contain "third parties" -- other embedded websites that your browser also talks to such as advertisers, website analytics engines or social media widgets -- which can observe your browsing behavior. Often these companies use this information for innocent -- albeit sometimes intrusive -- applications like targeted advertisements or personalized content. But third party web trackers raise questions about user privacy, as they can identify users as they visit multiple sites, pick up a person's trail and potentially construct a comprehensive profile based on web behavior.

At the USENIX Security Conference in Austin, Texas, a team of University of Washington researchers on Aug. 12 presented the first-ever comprehensive analysis of third-party web tracking across three decades and a new tool, TrackingExcavator, which they developed to extract and analyze tracking behaviors on a given web page. They saw a four-fold increase in third-party tracking on top sites from 1996 to 2016, and mapped the growing complexity of trackers stretching back decades.

"Third-party tracking started quite early in the history of the web," said Adam Lerner, a graduate student in the UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering who presented the team's findings at the conference. "People are becoming more concerned about the potential impact of third-party web tracking, but we lacked a comprehensive history of how trackers -- and the types of information they collect -- have evolved over time."

Lerner and fellow doctoral student Anna Kornfeld...

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