It seems to me that what we have been talking about last week is like a game between websites and users. The game of hide-and-seek, to be precise. We users use whatever tools we can find online to bar websites from finding the traces of our browsing history, while websites sneakily insert ‘trackers’ in our browsers in order to identify us and follow us wherever we go.

Every game has its rules and boundaries, so how about this game? Apparently, there is no specific rule governing what a website cannot track using the cookies implanted, neither is there a rule governing what a website can do with its data. Though Facebook is notably stingy in giving its data to third parties (such action, whatever its original intention is, actually protects users to a certain extent), there are just so many other companies that are much more generous in providing data (at a certain fee, of course). So there is no clear ‘boundary’ for websites in this game. The ‘Do Not Track’ system backed by FTC is, at best, a recommendation (and clearly not forceful enough) to website designers and browser builders.

While websites can track users in an almost limitless platform, what normal users could do is much more limited by the capabilities of tools online and their own understanding of the issue. The number of ‘trace-cleaning’ and ‘anti-tracing’ tools available is still too small and many of them do not function properly (removing certain cookies will cause user experience of certain websites to plummet). Moreover, users themselves are not as professional as website designers in detecting the possible trackers in a website and therefore could not implement effective solutions. Many others simply do not even know they are being tracked, and that constitutes a large percentage of normal users (no offense but IE users in particular).

What we see here is a game that leans towards one side – the websites. As a result of superior knowledge and insufficient restrictions, they simply can ‘catch’ almost every user they want. And no matter how hard a user tries to cover his online record, he could not hide in the dark for long before a website pinpoints him and starts tracking him again. Even if a certain website is barred by a user, there will always be a similar data-hoarding website taking its place and continue the unfinished task. What makes anti-tracking even harder is that the tracking websites have done so well in keeping a low profile that most of us have never heard of them before. It is the first time for me to know sites like DoubleClick (affiliated to Google), BlueKai, and Google Analytics, and I am afraid many people would never know such sites exist. Without knowing the existence of tracking sites, it is just impossible to block them.

Are users really going to lose out in this hide-and-seek game? Are there any remedies for them to get rid of their disadvantages and turn this game around? Since what the websites have done is not considered illegitimate, it is hard to use legislative tools to explicitly restrict their behavior. However, the online tracking action has indeed annoyed a lot of users, and many people are thinking of non-legislative ways which could be effective as well.

We have talked about websites like Panopticlick which aim to educate users about the vulnerability of their own browsers and computers. This is an important step to take since users and website designers are not competing on a fair platform now due to unequal knowledge in this field. But another question arises: are users willing to take the time to learn something that they could hardly use in other aspects of life? Personal data from online tracking is mostly used for purposes like consumer-targeted advertisement and marketing, which pose less harm to users (some could even see such purposes as beneficial). Despite the low level of threat currently, we should still take preventive measures because the harm such data is actually capable of posing could be a nightmare for everyone, and nobody knows whether or when such data will be used for more sinister purposes.

Our anti-tracking tools are consistently improving as well. Tools like Ghostery and ShareMeNot are at the frontier of anti-tracking and have gained the support of thousands of users. As long as sneaky tracking by certain websites still exist online, I have no doubt that some organizations will come out with better tools to give users more options in countering such behavior.

As this is the last of my FRS101 blog posts, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has viewed my articles. Special thanks to my professors and classmates for giving me the inspiration of many blog posts.

Wish everyone a wonderful winter break ahead!

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