Internet tracking is the underlying practice that makes behavioral advertising possible. After all, in order to deliver a highly targeted ad, a website needs to know as much about the person on the other side of the browser as possible. Tracking started with cookies from companies like DoubleClick (now part of Google), which were used to correlate what individuals searched for with the websites that they ended up visiting. Then it was expanded to include Web bugs (also called Web beacons). One of the latest technologies is browser fingerprinting, which makes use of the fact that most Web browsers provide an astonishing amount of information about your machine, including the installed fonts, the installed browser plug-ins, the screen size, and the time zone, which can be used to create a unique fingerprint. (Find out if a fingerprint has been created for your browser by visiting http://panopticlick.eff.org). A surprising number of websites even reach into your browser and download your entire browsing history, according to an academic paper published this past October.
All these technologies work together to track people on the Web—their interests, their income level, what products they’ve purchased, what ads they’ve seen, where they are, and other information as well. Of course, no single company has all this information. But Google comes pretty close, especially for people who leave themselves logged into their Gmail accounts when browsing the Internet or who make use of Google’s cloud services from an Android-based cell phone. Google can correlate what you search for with what Web pages you visit (provided that they contain Google ads), with where you are (thanks to your phone), and with which e-mail messages you read and which you ignore.
Most of today’s Internet tracking practices will be completely unaffected by the new Internet Explorer Tracking Protection feature, at least according to the way Microsoft has described it. According to Dean Hachamovitch, head of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer development team, the Tracking Protection in IE9 will be little more than a blacklist of websites that Internet Explorer won’t communicate with, even if another website requests that it do so:
“Tracking Protection in IE9 puts people in control of what data is being shared as they move around the Web. It does this by enabling consumers to indicate what websites they’d prefer to not exchange information with. Consumers do this by adding Tracking Protection Lists to Internet Explorer. Anyone, and any organization, on the Web can author and publish Tracking Protection Lists. Consumers can install more than one. By default, there are no lists included in IE9, which is consistent with our previous IE releases with respect to privacy.” “Providing Windows Customers with More Choice and Control of Their Privacy Online with Internet Explorer 9,” Microsoft News Center, December 7, 2010.