I use online-privacy tools. Or at least try to. Most of the time, I'm not sure what to block or what to allow. For example, I tweet so should I add a rule to my privacy app allowing:
I don't use Google Analytics; is it best to block this:
Now for the irony. If, like me, you're not sure what to do, the only way to find out is to go online -- which means risking your privacy.
What's the answer?
I have to be honest -- there isn't a good answer yet. I do know there are a lot of people working hard to find one. I've been fortunate to have several of them help with my articles about online privacy and Do Not Track. Dr. Aleecia McDonald is one such expert. Currently, Aleecia is co-chair of the W3C Tracking Protection Working Group (TPWG) -- the committee deciding how to maintain privacy on the Internet.
I mentioned TPWG because people behind a new online-privacy tool that I've been researching are involved in the process. In fact, one of the company co-founders was at the recent TPWG meeting in Brussels. It's not every day a business invests time and money to help with standards.
Enough back story
I'd like to introduce you to Abine, Inc and co-founders Rob Shavell, Andrew Sudbury, and Eugene Kuznetsov -- all MIT engineers. These are the guys invested in TPWG and aware of people like me -- those "trying to" figure out online-privacy tools.
Do Not Track Plus (DNT+), the online-privacy tool I mentioned, is their answer. Here's what they say it can do.
Before running tests on DNT+, I decided to contact Abine. Rob Shavell and Bill Kerrigan -- CEO of Abine -- hopped on the conference call and answered the following questions.Kassner: For the uninitiated, would you explain what DNT+ is? Kerrigan: DNT+ is a free web-browser tool that uncovers invisible online tracking and targeted advertising, stopping consumers from being followed online. If you pay attention to the DNT+ icon sitting in the upper right corner of the web browser, you'll notice a number. That's how many trackers are associated with that particular website.
By clicking on the DNT+ icon, users can see details of the companies and technologies attempting to track them, as well as an all-time count of blocked tracking attempts.Kassner: Let's check it out. I went to a website and clicked on the DNT+ icon. The following window opened.
Would you describe what we are looking at?Kerrigan: The DNT+ privacy window provides detail about the tracking companies and technologies associated with the website you visited. We divide the information into three categories:
- Social buttons: Links to websites that focus on building social relationships (like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) and help members easily share content, interests, and activities with their contacts. With social buttons, social networks are able to track your activity across the Internet.
- Advertising networks: Businesses purposed to share information across different sites. They collect data, display advertising, and place cookies as a paid service. Typically, customers are those interested in displaying targeted-marketing content on many different websites.
- Tracking companies: There are firms that provide website owners with tools to analyze and monitor visitors to their sites. These analytics networks collect data on how long you stayed on a site, what you clicked on, where you were before, and where you went after your visit.
Finally, the number you're seeing on the bottom of the window is the all-time tracking total. It represents blocked tracking attempts.Kassner: I'd like to go back to social buttons for a second. Are you saying DNT+ blocks social-button requests because they are involved in tracking? Shavell: Yes. When your computer is asked to make requests for a social button -- for instance, when Facebook "Like" buttons are included on a website with XFBML or an iframe -- we block the request from being made. In its place, we put a marker that looks just like a regular button into the same spot on the page so you know a social button is supposed to be there.
If you click on the social button placeholder, we know you want to share, so we then load the social buttons into the page and activate the button you clicked. You'll have to click again to share in case your click was an accident.Kassner: What specific features are incorporated in DNT+? Kerrigan: It's best to discuss the features in terms of web-browser activity:
- Web browser start-up: DNT+ sets opt-out cookies. Opt-out cookies are non-unique, non-personally-identifiable cookies that inform advertisers not to deliver targeted advertisements.
- While browsing: DNT+ sends the Do Not Track header -- a new standard of requesting that companies don't track you online to every web server. However, there isn't an agreed-upon meaning for what companies need to do when they see this header. That's why we also block requests we think are occurring to track you.
- Web browser shutting down: Upon closing, DNT+ will remove all set opt-out cookies.
All of the above takes place locally on the client computer. Abine is only aware of two things:
- IP addresses of devices downloading DNT+ are counted to keep track of how many copies of DNT+ exist.
- Abine servers see when client software asks for tracking-information updates.
And we being very privacy-conscious, will not collect personally-identifiable information.Kassner: There are several well-known privacy tools already on the market. What distinguishes DNT+? Kerrigan: There are several products available for people with acumen in tracking companies. We designed DNT+ to be simple to use. In addition, DNT+ has some unique characteristics:
- Blocks tracking, but still enables voluntary use of social buttons.
- Available on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.
- Actively blocks tracking requests from ever being made and selectively sends the Do Not Track HTTP header, rather than wholesale broadcasting.
People debate whether privacy on the Internet is even possible or not. Whether it's achievable or not, I think we can agree -- privacy is important.
Michael Kassner is currently a systems manager for an international company. Together with his son, he runs MKassner Net, a small IT publication consultancy.