When a reader sent an email the other day telling us about the number of trackers on the al.com website, I have to admit I wasn’t completely certain what he was talking about.
Sure, I knew there were companies out there watching what we’re doing online, and I’ve certainly had the experience of looking for a pair of shoes online and suddenly every website I visit has shoe ads popping at me. But what this reader sent was eye opening.
He had software on his web browser that shows just how many tracking companies are active on any website he visits. These are companies collecting information on readers’ habits, what they look at, what they buy, etc. He’d sent me a screen shot of what he found on his browser — al.com with 158 different trackers working at once to gather his information.
It seemed kind of unbelievable that al.com, or any website would allow that many information gatherers to operate on their site. So I downloaded the software on my own computer. Named Ghostery, this free software downloaded quickly and was immediately operational. So I went to check things out.
When I hit al.com, I didn’t get 158, but 44 trackers were operating at that moment. On the sports front there were 50. It seemed like the numbers changed some every time I reloaded the pages.
Most of these trackers are information brokers who are gathering readers’ information so they can sell it to any number of businesses. According to an investigative report done earlier this year by “60 Minutes,” there are thousands of these tracking companies, which include advertisers, retailers and trade associations. The largest of these is Acxiom, a company that claims it has on average 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans.
Some of the information they’re selling can include medical issues, sexual orientation and sexual habits, all gathered from what readers are clicking on the web and done without their knowledge. Worse yet, these trackers have to gain access to the websites with permission of the company that owns them. In other words, the trackers have the website owners’ permission to do what they’re doing.
Not to pick on al.com, I figured I’d take a spin around the local media block and see what’s what on their websites. First stop was WKRG-TV and Ghostery told me they had 80 trackers working at that time.
Next highest on the list was WPMI-TV, which had 39 going during my visit. WALA-TV was the most restrained of the television stations, with only 17 trackers showing. However, keep in mind ESPN, an international site with a massive number of readers only showed 13 trackers working when I went there. The New York Times’ web page showed 27 working.
I was curious about Lagniappe’s website too. Lagniappemobile.com showed just seven trackers going, the same number that showed up at FMTALK 106.5’s website. WKSJ-FM, one of the area’s largest radio stations, only had 16 trackers going when I visited.
It’s kind of disconcerting to really see the downside of the “digital revolution” so starkly displayed. I doubt many of us would ever pick up a newspaper or flip on the TV if we thought 50, 27 or even seven companies were watching what we’re doing, watching or reading and keeping dossiers on us. But that’s one of the enduring things about print in particular, it still private when you read it .
I’m sure all these media outlets are looking for digital sources of revenue since the “digital revolution” hasn’t delivered financially the way some predicted it would. But to know so many are watching and trying to sell our data is a pretty big turnoff.
On the plus side, programs like Ghostery can also help you block the gatherers.