If you tried to opt out of online tracking, it probably didn't work

A computer screen of Dirk Engling, spokesperson for Chaos Computer Club, shows the control software for the Trojan spyware allegedly made by the German authorities monitoring the traffic on a remote computer in the CCC's offices in Berlin on October 12, 2011.

There's been a great deal of talk in recent months about online tracking. It's the idea that a company would find ways to follow you around the Internet and get a feel for the kinds of sites you visit with the intention of serving you advertising based on the kinds of things you like. If you're a Chicago Cubs fan, you might get ads for Cubs apparel. If you like Lady Gaga, maybe you get some ads for something Gaga-related.

Some people find this convenient, others find it creepy. For that second group, there are many opportunities to "opt out" of online tracking through special software or browser extensions.

But a study run by the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University indicates that these products simply don't work because people are unable to figure out how to work them properly.

Lorrie Cranor is the director of the lab. She and her team extensively tested nine popular opt-out tools and none of them really passed.

"If you use the Internet Explorer 9 web browser," she said, "They have something called a tracking protection list. People turned on the tracking protection list feature and thought they were done. But it doesn't do anything unless you select a particular tracking protection list. And that wasn't at all obvious to our participants."

"Another way you can opt out is websites have lists of ad companies and you can choose which can and can't track you. We had one website that had over 100 different companies. In some cases, the instructions were in Japanese. One participant spent 47 minutes and used Google translate to translate pages so he could figure out how to opt out."

Cranor says one of the reasons this is so hard is that there's no common standard among the companies. "One way to do it would be to have a common standard and there are some efforts to create such a thing. The other approach is to have a tool that's constantly updating itself to find every tracker out there and adding to the block list. Some of those tools are good, but they block the desirable content. If you want to play some games like Farmville, depending on how you had this thing set up, it might prevent you from doing that."

So you're probably being tracked. Sorry. But how big of a problem is that, really? Chester Wisniewski of the security firm Sophos says it's "really not much different than when you have the frequent shopper card at the supermarket. That allows that store to get an idea of what products you buy and they can tailor their marketing and their placement of products in the store to their customer base. The worst that could happen is that advertisers can sell a profile of your information to one another in a way that you lose control of your private information. But I don't know that it could be used to harm you except for invading privacy."

Wisniewski says that people are concerned about privacy even if the do-not-track options might not work all that well: "The Carnegie study showed that 80-some percentage of people expressed concerns about being tracked. I think people are still concerned about it, but we feel helpless because as the study showed, it's so difficult to opt out properly, even if you think you're doing it, you're not, and people are annoyed with the complexity."

Also on today's program, a fully loaded Kindle e-book reader weighs more than an empty one. But don't worry, it's only the difference of a billionth of a billionth of a gram.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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