Tracking the Trackers
A Digital Methods Summer School 2013 Workshop
Anne Helmond (UvA) & Alexei Miagkov (Ghostery)
One action, many data points
“For every explicit action of a user, there are
probably 100+ implicit data points from
usage...
Hitting & tracking
Every time a web user requests a
website, a series of tracking
features are enabled.
Hitting & tracking
Every time a web user requests a
website, a series of tracking
features are enabled.
Workshop objective...
Cookies
• (HTML) Cookies are a string of text or a
unique identifier downloaded to your browser
after requesting a website...
Cookies
• Can be issued by requested website.
• But can also come from third party
providers: ad companies, analytics serv...
Cookies & dataflows
• Tracking devices enable behavioural
targeting.
• Not only happen in the back-end, return to
users th...
Tracking ecologies
• Tracking data is used & re-used by multiple actors.
• Profiling, reselling, personalisation, recommen...
Cookie auctions & piggybacking
• Cookies are not only being used by the services that
issues them.
• Real-time reselling &...
Social media platform cookies
• Platform features (Facebook Connect, Twitter Buttons,
etc) can place cookies.
• Data can b...
Beyond cookies
• Flash cookies: Used on Flash websites.
• Server logs: Saving requests to the website’s server
usually inc...
Tracking blockers
Ghostery: Detects and allows to block the invisible web.
• Allows to selectively enable/disable cookies,...
Visualising trackers
Mozilla Collusion: Creates a network of
browsed sites and associated tracking
services for users in r...
Tracking blockers
Disconnect.me: Blocks and visualises
trackers. Especially disables social widgets
and personalised adver...
Tracking blockers
Mozilla Do Not Track: Firefox
feature which allows users to
tell websites that they want to
opt out of t...
Tracking projects & research
Tracking the trackers
(Guardian): User generated
tracking map based on Mozilla
Collusion data...
Tracking projects & research
Cookie Search Engine
(German): Detects first and
third party cookies on URLs.
• Provides list...
Tracking projects & research
Visipisi: Deploys cookies to detect which
websites have recently been visited.
DMI: Tracker Tracker
• Objective: detecting interfaces to the cloud and
data-mining features operating in the back-end.
• ...
DMI: Tracker Tracker
Allows to detect alternative fabric
of the web - not organised by
mutual linking practices between
we...
DMI: Tracker Tracker
Websites using Facebook Social
Plugins and Facebook Connect in
the top 1000 global websites
according...
DMI: Tracker Tracker
Websites using Google Analytics
in the top 1000 global websites
according to Alexa, February
2012
DMI: Tracker Tracker
Presence of Trackers on
websites of Dutch
political parties, June
2012.
Tracking exercise
1. Collect a set of URLs, for instance via www.alexa.com.
Use the Link Ripper to extract them.
2. Enter ...
Questions?
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Tracking the Trackers tutorial at the Digital Methods Summer School 2013

  1. 1. Tracking the Trackers A Digital Methods Summer School 2013 Workshop Anne Helmond (UvA) & Alexei Miagkov (Ghostery)
  2. 2. One action, many data points “For every explicit action of a user, there are probably 100+ implicit data points from usage; whether that is a page visit, a scroll etc.” (Berry 2011: 152)
  3. 3. Hitting & tracking Every time a web user requests a website, a series of tracking features are enabled.
  4. 4. Hitting & tracking Every time a web user requests a website, a series of tracking features are enabled. Workshop objective: Tracking the trackers.
  5. 5. Cookies • (HTML) Cookies are a string of text or a unique identifier downloaded to your browser after requesting a website. • Cookies do not share data about the user, but recognise returning visits/requests. • Every time the associated website is visited, information is send to the cookie owner.
  6. 6. Cookies • Can be issued by requested website. • But can also come from third party providers: ad companies, analytics services, social media platforms. Multiple purposes • Remember site preferences. • Collect information to enhance usability of site. • Part of secure logins. • User profiling across sites (ad services). • Behavioural targeting. • Additional user data for platform.
  7. 7. Cookies & dataflows • Tracking devices enable behavioural targeting. • Not only happen in the back-end, return to users through personalised ads & recommendations.
  8. 8. Tracking ecologies • Tracking data is used & re-used by multiple actors. • Profiling, reselling, personalisation, recommendation, behaviour targeting, re-combination... • Profiling machines (Elmer 2004), qualculation (Thrift 2008), de- & recomposition of relations (Mackenzie 2012). • Part of multiple relational databases: Not individual datasets or datapoints matter, but relations created between them (Mackenzie 2012).
  9. 9. Cookie auctions & piggybacking • Cookies are not only being used by the services that issues them. • Real-time reselling & cookie auctions for personalised advertising (Borgesius 2012). • Cookies trigger further tracking devices & let them piggyback - websites do not exactly know which services collect data about their visitors.
  10. 10. Social media platform cookies • Platform features (Facebook Connect, Twitter Buttons, etc) can place cookies. • Data can be connected to existing user profiles or collected and used upon sign-up. • Facebook: Cookies not used for ads. Twitter: used for ads & recommendations. • All web users are potential platform users & contribute to its data mining practices.
  11. 11. Beyond cookies • Flash cookies: Used on Flash websites. • Server logs: Saving requests to the website’s server usually include: IP, date/time, referral page, time spend and pages visited. • Beacons: Small, mostly invisible objects (pixels, bugs) embedded in websites or emails. Enables third parties to identify website requests. Do not place a file on the browser. • Widgets: Small applications that can be implemented and executed on websites, i.e. social media or blog widgets.
  12. 12. Tracking blockers Ghostery: Detects and allows to block the invisible web. • Allows to selectively enable/disable cookies, advertising, beacons etc. • Users can opt to contribute to Ghostrank: analytics on the most dominant tracking devices online. • Detecting over 1000 trackers.
  13. 13. Visualising trackers Mozilla Collusion: Creates a network of browsed sites and associated tracking services for users in real time while browsing. • Visualises which services are tracking users and how they are connected to other websites visited.
  14. 14. Tracking blockers Disconnect.me: Blocks and visualises trackers. Especially disables social widgets and personalised advertising. • Disables Facebook Social Plugins/ recommendation features.
  15. 15. Tracking blockers Mozilla Do Not Track: Firefox feature which allows users to tell websites that they want to opt out of third-party tracking services. • Transmits a Do Not Track HTTP whenever data is requested. • Requires tracking services to offer opt out: Works for Twitter, but not for Facebook.
  16. 16. Tracking projects & research Tracking the trackers (Guardian): User generated tracking map based on Mozilla Collusion data. • Covers 7000 websites and features insights into the data shared by most prominent tracking services. • Limitations: user generated, random set of URLs.
  17. 17. Tracking projects & research Cookie Search Engine (German): Detects first and third party cookies on URLs. • Provides list of cookies, their domain, security options and expiry date.
  18. 18. Tracking projects & research Visipisi: Deploys cookies to detect which websites have recently been visited.
  19. 19. DMI: Tracker Tracker • Objective: detecting interfaces to the cloud and data-mining features operating in the back-end. • Repurpose analytical capacities of Ghostery to detect presence of tracking devices on websites. • Input list of URL, output: list of trackers & network formatted data.
  20. 20. DMI: Tracker Tracker Allows to detect alternative fabric of the web - not organised by mutual linking practices between webmasters, but through the presence of tracking devices.
  21. 21. DMI: Tracker Tracker Websites using Facebook Social Plugins and Facebook Connect in the top 1000 global websites according to Alexa, February 2012
  22. 22. DMI: Tracker Tracker Websites using Google Analytics in the top 1000 global websites according to Alexa, February 2012
  23. 23. DMI: Tracker Tracker Presence of Trackers on websites of Dutch political parties, June 2012.
  24. 24. Tracking exercise 1. Collect a set of URLs, for instance via www.alexa.com. Use the Link Ripper to extract them. 2. Enter the list into the Tracker Tracker tool (max 100). Settings: Only look at specific pages. 3. Save .gefx file. 4. Open in Gephi, use colour settings to visually distinguish different tracking services.
  25. 25. Questions?
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