Online trackers: are our local news providers following us?

A battle is raging between online advertisers and those who don’t want to be followed on the Web, and New Zealand news websites have a part to play.
Journalists and privacy experts have recently been pointing the finger at news websites as some of the worst offenders when it comes to collecting people’s data without any formal disclosure.
Much of this is happening through online ‘trackers’, hidden pieces of code in websites that track how a user clicks, or even hovers, on a site.

The public is vaguely aware that using free services on the Internet comes at a cost – you will be advertised at – but even those with the most basic tech knowledge are turning to tracker-blockers to protect their privacy.
One such tracker-blocker is the plug-in Ghostery.
The plug-in allows you to view the trackers operating on any website, click through to learn about those trackers, and block all or any of them by being a “web detective”.

In their own words: “After you’ve seen what’s tracking you, you can decide whether or not you want to block any or all of the companies in Ghostery’s library. Are there some marketers you trust, but others you’d rather turn away? Do you want to allow tracking on some websites, but not on others? Ghostery puts the power in your hands, giving you complete control over access to your information and a speedier browsing experience.”

I put Ghostery to the test to see how many trackers New Zealand-based news media are exposing us to. Stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz both came in with 17 trackers each, six of which were explicitly classed as advertisers.

Next on the list was KiwiBlog, with 14, followed by us at StopPress, with ten, then the National Business Review, TVNZ and Scoop, each with seven, TV3 with five, and Radio New Zealand with four.
But the most off the chart numbers came from WhaleOil, which has a grand total of 32 trackers, eight of which were categorised as advertising.

I put the figures to Internet entrepreneur Vikram Kumar, and he sounded shocked.

“That’s a lot. Most websites would probably be in the range of five to six, so anything above eight to ten would be very high,” he says.

Although Kumar is quick to remind me that there are good trackers and bad trackers.

“The Herald, for example, has a lot of video, and those get blocked, they have trackers. So it’s really not ‘all trackers are bad’ but anything above four to five I would be saying is pretty high.”

Another example of good trackers is Google Analytics, a service that allows a website to see what pages a user clicks on and how long they spend on each page, mostly used to improve their site.

“But the one people get concerned about tracks what types of articles they read, inferring from that their behaviour or what they’re interested in, both from the newspaper website and also on other websites, based on what they’ve clicked on.

“And that notion of being watched on a news website makes people feel a little bit creepy.”

Kumar uses the Ghostery plug-in himself to routinely block all and every tracker on websites. But he says as tracker-blockers become more advanced, so do advertisers.

“In response to that many websites have started introducing more deeply hidden and tricky trackers that even for technically aware people its pretty hard to stop.
“So there’s a constant battle between those who want to block trackers and block pop up advertising versus those who are in the business of tracking.”

Kumar says most people understand that that reading news for free means they are paying in other ways, like giving up their browsing habits.

But others are drawing the line at quite how much of their browsing history they are willing to give up. 

A rising trend in online advertising is re-targeting. You browse a product on one website, decide not to buy, and then get offered the same product on a completely unrelated website for $5 cheaper.

This cross-platform tracking is what some people are finding too much to handle, Kumar says. 

“Retargeting works really well, that’s why it’s becoming so popular. But there is an issue with trackers here for me: I don’t have a problem with voluntarily going to a website and they want to see what I’m doing and understand their website, that all is fine to me, what is creepy is this cross-site tracking where everything I do is now available to be looked at for advertising. That’s where I draw my line.”

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