This Tool Lets You See Exactly Who’s Tracking What You’re Reading Online

This Tool Lets You See Exactly Who’s Tracking What You’re Reading Online

Trackography paints a picture of who is reading over your shoulder.

Have you ever been reading a newspaper and noticed a stranger reading it over your shoulder? Reading the news online is like having Google, Facebook, or Twitter do the same thing. Known as third-party trackers, these companies collect data about who you are, what you’re reading, and what you’re interested in, usually without you ever knowing it.

Trackography, an open source project developed by the Tactical Technology Collective, lifts the veil on the global tracking industry by providing a snapshot of the third-party trackers in over 2,500 media websites across 38 countries. Collaborating with partners around the world, we created an interactive visualization of these third-party trackers. By showing the route your data travels—from your computer to the servers of the websites and the servers of the third-party trackers—Trackography paints a picture of who is reading over your shoulder.

The goal of much of this tracking is to target us with advertising. Data about our online activities is collected and aggregated into profiles. These profiles tell third-party trackers who we are, what we’re interested in, and predict what we will do in the future. This might sound harmless. But a closer look at the global tracking industry reveals new and troubling power dynamics.

Trackography shows us that reading the news online is a more political endeavor than we might imagine. For instance, the data of readers of pravda.com.ua and vesti.ua, two national newspapers in Ukraine, travel through Russian network infrastructure. These websites have various Russian third-party tracking companies, like Yandex and Vkontakte, embedded in their front pages. Given the current conflict, readers of online news in Ukraine might be distressed to learn that they’re consenting to commercial profiling by Russian third-party trackers.

Media companies, too, might not realize how much data they are giving away and how little they are getting in return. Third-party trackers are usually added to websites by the publication’s IT department, for running analytics, for instance, or to increase the ease by which readers can share news stories.

Companies like Google make huge profits because of this—Google reported a market capitalization of $400 billion last year, some of it earned from user data, including the data they get from online media. Yet, while Google profits from this data, online newspapers are struggling financially. Giving away data to third-party trackers might not be the most responsible thing online media can do, nor the most profitable. 

Unsurprisingly, the top three third-party trackers that we found in over 87 percent of the media websites we examined were Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These three companies are omnipresent on the internet and in our lives, and their outsize control over online tracking raises some fundamental questions. We know very little about how these three companies use all this data, or how they aggregate it [PDF] with other data they collect about us. Given this, it’s fair to assume that Google, Facebook, and Twitter collectively own more data about us than any other entity in the world. What does this mean for individual users, and for society at large? 

Governments have a responsibility to protect us. Right now, aside from countries’ privacy laws, which were often created in the pre-internet era and apply only to what they call “personally identifiable information,” our right to privacy ends at these companies’ privacy policies, their terms of service, and their “I Accept Cookies” pop-ups.

The data industry is opaque. We developed Trackography to increase transparency around the global tracking industry so that you, the reader, can see which companies are watching you when you visit a website. Through just a few simple steps you can improve your online privacy and understand more about online tracking, from basic browsing protection to cleaning your cookies to adding plugins that block third-party trackers. 

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11 Comments

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A positive methods in a right directions

This is a dangerous trend, marking the calamity of our age increasingly turning the age of 'merchants' ! See how even nation heads are first acting like marketing officer for the business community in their respective countries ? Their foreign trips are first and foremost marketing trips !
This attack on privacy of citizens is aggravated by similar, or even greater 'tapping' of citizens activities, especially their internet activities by the governments; there was a news in Indian newspaper Hindustan Times today, that govt. has achieved direct access to citizens phone, internet including social-media activities without the aid of telecom providers... it is grave control of citizens lives and thoughts, a calamity against which citizens own govt.system-democracy-was devised by its founding fathers. The trend of govt and business gaining more and more control over men's lives is a danger that every man and freedom and rights institution must fight tooth and nail..

thanks for the information. I would love to track my trackers.

Wow that is what technology has done. Thanks for enlightening me.

Thank you for such pro community sentiments. Good work and keep it up Open Society as ever!!! A good turn deserves another!!!

When I consent to go to site A, lurking there are a multitude of tracking sites, B-Z, that I have not consented to and are running scripts, leaving unwanted cookies, slowing down my computer, outlaw this! Comment to the FTC/FCC, tell them to outlaw tracking sites! IF they want us to shop, how about better/safer products that last and better customer service and product descriptions that actually describe what the the product is and who made it not rebranding?
Want to see what lurks in everyday sites try FireFox with NoScript installed, FRIGHTFUL!

Very interesting article. This does not come as a shock of course but it brings it home for me. More than annoying, it is downright scary to realize that all you do online is "followed". You do a simple search for anything and you are instantly bombarded with adds specific to that search and that's just the annoying stuff. The potential for abuse ( Ha!) in tracking is immense. It reminds me of the film "The Lives of Others". Having diverse interests, I sometimes stop myself from going to specific websites for fear ( irrational, a rational person would say ) of triggering red flags, while having no ill-intent. Thank you.

Good to know .Never really thought about it

This tracking stuff is not just commercial and you know it!

In this epoch of terrorism -drug trafficking ,money laundering- etc ,if an international reputed agency under U.N.O or Interpol is tracking all communications, Money transactions,postings and messages It will surly help to curb terrorism of all kinds . If the data Industry is made transparent -much of the miss-use can be avoided . It seems to be more practical .If I am using certain fire- walls to prevent somebody looking over my shoulders (it is surly annoying I agree ) they can use better technology and even deny my access to sites and details I am looking for. Better to enforce data Industry to be accountable and transparent at least the data to be made available to reputed international agencies under U.N supervision.

Laws on third party cookies need to be written making the trackers completely liable when using or selling someone's personal information(leaving fingerprints). There is no consent by these companies and they are operating crossing international boarders doing it. Most all of the so called "blocking" software does nothing to prevent them from tracking your address,clicks and all online behavior. They claim they can do it because you opt in....that is b.s. nobody opts in for personal tracking.

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