Social Networks Leaking Users Data To Tracking
Many populartypically make personal information available to companies that track users' browsing habits and allow them to link anonymous browsing habits to specific people, according to a new study by the (WPI).
"When you sign up with a social networking site, you are assigned a unique identifier," says Craig Wills, professor of computer science at WPI.
"This is a string of numbers or characters that points to your profile. We found that when social networking sites pass information to tracking sites about your activities, they often include this unique identifier. So now a tracking site not only has a profile of your Web browsing activities, it can link that profile to the personal information you post on the social networking site. Now your browsing profile is not just of somebody, it is of you."
Social networks use third-party tracking sites to learn about the browsing habits of their users. Cookies are managed by a browser and contain information that allows tracking sites to build profiles of the websites visited by a user. Each time a user visits a new website, the tracking site can review those cookies to offer ads that might be relevant to the user.
Wills says social networks go to far by allowing the transmission of unique identifiers. "Users put a lot of information about themselves on social networking sites," said Wills.
A lot of that information can be seen by other users, by default. There are mechanisms users can use to limit access to their information, but we found through previous research that most users don't take advantage of them."
With a unique identifier tracking sites could gain access to a users personal information. Wills says this could lead to having one's identity linked to inaccurate browsing profiles, depending on how many people use the same computer.
"Tracking sites don't have the ability to know if, for example, a site about cancer was visited out of curiosity, or because the user actually has cancer," said Wills. "Profiling is worrisome on its own, but inaccurate profiling could potentially lead to issues with employment, health care coverage, or other areas of our personal lives."
"Once someone is in possession of your unique identifier, there is so much they can learn about you. And even if tracking sites do not use the information themselves, can they guarantee that it will never find its way into other hands? For these reasons, we feel this issue is something that we should to be concerned about."
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