Your ‘Do Not Track’ tool might be helping websites track you, study says

Millions of people are using “Do Not Track” tools which do nothing, according to a recent study done by Forrester Research. The “Do Not Track” features embedded in popular browsers are being ignored, opening up the possibility of consumers having their browsing information picked up by specific ads on the web.

In the research, picked up by Gizmodo, it was revealed that a quarter of American adults browsing the internet use “Do Not Track” tools to try and safeguard their privacy online. Unfortunately, the research shows that popular websites like Google don’t honor requests set up by these tools. Currently, only certain websites like Reddit, Pinterest, and Medium respect “Do Not Track” settings, and Yahoo and Twitter backed off initial claims of respecting “Do Not Track” results.

Unlike with the national Do Not Call Registry for telephones, there is no penalty if a website ignores a “Do Not Track” claim. Tracking options are rather independently handled, with very little outside control. In fact, Mozilla showed disappointment in this, announcing plans for removing cross-site tracking, and mitigating harmful practices by default in upcoming versions of Firefox.

“In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet, in reality, they are tracked wherever they go. Most web browsers fail to help users get the level of privacy they expect and deserve,” Mozilla’s Nick Nguyen wrote in the August 30 post.

In 2010, the United States government and the W3C web technical standards organization crafted the DNT:1 signal for web pages to try and address privacy and tracking concerns. However, after issues posed by online advertisers, privacy advocates, and the way in which websites should handle the track requests, it never fully phased out or became an industry-wide adopted standard.

That all leads to today, where some websites can track, and others can not. To try and avoid tracking, you can check out opt-out websites, but these only will stop data collection based on what they already know about you. For true resistance to tracking, you also can clear your cookies and your cache to purge your information from advertisers.

Companies like Google and Microsoft have been pushing “Do Not Track” features in web browsers for quite some time, but this latest research theoretically renders that useless. Tracking still remains a big concern for consumers on mobile too, especially on Android phones. There is hope, though, as an international working group is attempting to create a consensus interpretation that will have most websites accept all “Do Not Track” websites.

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