Don’t Follow Me

Jan. 18, 2011, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford researchers develop anti-tracking software

Until recently, Internet users concerned with their privacy could do little to protect themselves from third-party tracking while surfing the Web. But thanks to the work of two Stanford researchers Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan, users can now opt out of tracking that compiles information about their interests and preferences for online advertisers.

Behavioral advertising, which involves tracking online consumers’ browsing histories, seeks to present ads that are targeted to the interests of individual consumers. Mayer, a graduate student in law and computer science, says users are becoming increasingly concerned about the presence of behavioral advertising.

“These sites get information about users by tracking the places they visit,” he said. “Users feel a real privacy concern.”

Last August, Mayer and Narayanan, who is a post-doctoral researcher, set out to create software that would allow users to indicate they don’t want to be tracked as they surf the Web. Do Not Track, the product of their work, is already in use by thousands who have installed Adblock Plus or NoScript, two free, popular Firefox add-ons that use the software.

The technology behind Do Not Track is fairly simple, Mayer says. The software works by appending a custom header to HTTP requests sent by Web browsers. Each time the user visits a site, this header indicates that the user doesn’t want to be tracked. Currently, however, compliance with header requests is voluntary: websites are not required to respond to users’ requests.

For Mayer and Narayanan, this is the biggest challenge for Do Not Track. Though the software was noted in the Federal Trade Commission’s report on Web privacy last November, there is debate as to whether sites should be required to comply with the software’s requests.

Mayer says addressing these policy considerations is currently the duo’s main goal.

“The technology’s actually dead simple,” he said. “The challenges at this point are certainly more on the policy side.”

Online advertisers are the main opponents of Do Not Track, he said, adding that claims of the software’s ability to destroy the online advertising industry are unfounded, especially since behavioral advertising represents a small portion of the online ad market.

“Contextual, demographic and search-engine ads actually account for the vast majority of online ads,” he said. “The idea that Do Not Track would wipe out the market is difficult to believe.”

Mayer added that advertisers could respect users’ privacy while still tailoring ads to the specific interests and preferences of consumers. He said that interest-based advertising without tracking could be achieved by having users initially indicate their interests to their browser. The first time users launched Do Not Track, they could also select their interests from a list provided by their browser.

“We really think this is a great solution to the problem,” he said. “It’s definitely possible to get analytics for advertising without third-party tracking.”

Mayer maintained that Do Not Track provides a choice for both parties involved. Sites that don’t wish to suspend third-party tracking, he said, could refuse the user’s request, but only after informing the user. Consumers would thus be aware when sites were tracking them.

“This is ultimately about choice and transparency,” he said. “It truly is a very practical technology.”

Mayer is optimistic about the outlook of Do Not Track and plans to continue to expose its feasibility.

“We’re really excited about what we’ve created,” he said. “Do Not Track has the ability to make a meaningful impact in the protection of online privacy.”

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