Websites want to know who you are, where you’ve been, and where you go after you’ve visited them, because the more personal information they have on your shopping habits, hobbies, personal interests, who your friends are (and what their shopping habits, hobbies are etc.) the more accurately they can deliver targeted advertising. Even when a particular website cannot use the data itself, online marketplaces allow it to sell or trade to others who can.
The methods used to track website visitors are becoming increasingly sophisticated and sneaky (we have a three part series exploring such nastinesses as zombie cookies, ETags, history stealing and browser fingerprinting starting here).
Over the last few years the Do Not Track standard, a request placed into a web browser’s HTTP header field requesting that web sites do not track the user, has gained ground. Compliance has always been voluntary and is extremely patchy, but the feature has been added to all major browsers (instructions for how to enable this feature in different browsers are available here), and higher profile tech companies have paid at least lip service to respecting the request.
However, in a blog post on Wednesday Yahoo announced that would no longer respect users’ wishes to not be monitored for advertising purposes,
‘As of today, web browser Do Not Track settings will no longer be enabled on Yahoo.’
Yahoo’s excuse is that ‘we fundamentally believe the best web is a personalized one.’ Umm, what they mean is a web where they are able to deliver highly targeted advertising.
Given the lucrative incentives for websites such as Yahoo to track users (especially since its market share slipped a further 6 percent in 2013), this move hardly comes as a surprise, and may signal the beginning of the end for the standard (which has anyway been poorly adhered to by a majority of websites).
Fortunately, there are many things individual netizens can do to help prevent being tracked online. As noted earlier, we have a three part series examining the various threats to users from online tracking technologies, as well as article on extensions for Firefox and Chrome /Chromium that can be used to improve security and prevent tracking (except browser fingerprinting).
Of course, it still can’t hurt to enable Do Not Track in your browser, but you should not rely on it to protect you (and certainly not now from Yahoo!).