Friday, December 03, 2010

"Don't Track Me!" & Concern over new web tracking methods

Some interesting details are coming out on the "Do Not Track" idea:

Q: How would the proposed "Do Not Track" feature work?

A: As envisioned by the FTC, it would be a universal setting. Instead of having to seek out the websites or individual marketing companies to ask them not to track you, you would be able to turn on a setting in your browser that would broadcast that message to any and all marketers you encounter in your Web travels.


Unlike the Do Not Call Registry, in which the government maintains a list of phone numbers, the "Do Not Track" information would be stored as something akin to a cookie in each individual browser. [emphasis added]

So, a person could essentially flip a switch on their computer that says, "Do not track me!" and, presumably, merchants would be required to comply.

This is vastly preferable, and substantially different to a central database that would identify every surfer as they moved around various websites, which I expressed serious concern about two days ago. In fact, news reports characterizing the idea as a "Do Not Track List" were incorrect, since there would apparently be no list at all.

Of course, even if a browser cookie method would be used, there would still be a risk of non-compliant merchants, as well as foreign sites who would not be subject to the rule. However, this is a much smaller problem than the potential of having someone keep track of people's identities as they surf the web.

I am undecided about whether, given this development, I now support the idea or not, although I admit I am now leaning towards support. A big question that still needs to be answered is whether it is actually necessary for the government to mandate such technology.

It occurs to me, however, that while they are dealing with this question, they should also deal with the question of what methods are used to track people. It is already known, for instance, that Flash cookies can be used to track people, including those who intentionally clear their regular cookies after each browser session. You need a special Firefox plugin to void the Flash cookies. Furthermore, when HTML 5 is finally implemented, one "feature" of it will be the ability to utilize more and "better" ways of collecting information from web surfers. There is also the problem of device fingerprinting, which is already here. Will a "do not track" list put a damper on this sort of horseshit? Because, if it doesn't, then it is obviously useless.

There is also the question of whether the upcoming Republican Congress will even be willing to consider any of this.

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