Social Networks Leaking Users Data To Tracking Sites

Browsing profile linked to unique identifier

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Many popular social networking sites typically 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 Worcester Polytechnic Institute (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."

Do you worry about your data from Facebook or Twitter getting leaked to tracking sites? Let us know in the comments.

Craig E. Wills, Computer Science Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Craig E. Wills
Computer Science Dpt.
Worcester Polytechnic Insti.

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."

Does this make you concerned about using social media? Tell us in the comments.

Social Networks Leaking Users Data To Tracking Sites
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  • http://www.laokay.com Steve

    This is why trying to figure out people’s interests is easier to just ask them.

    What I’m shocked is that basically since you have an anonymous profile somewhere the second that you go to another site that uses that same identifier to track you (like let’s say Google for instance), if it’s a site that you put up any identifiable information, once they put 1 and 1 together, they get you.

    The intention was not to shell out any personal information to who you are, but it’s really too late when they can track every page you ever have been to and then pretty much see who you are on myspace, twitter, facebook, etc….

    I do agree that it’s very unlikely that they will 100% accurately track who you are with things like multiple computers with multiple users, but for those who are on the same computer everyday, and nobody else really uses that computer but you…..they just might be able to.

  • http://www.ebook-site.com Bryan Quinn

    A very informative post that should help readers decide what information they choose to put on social networking sites.

  • http://www.homesolarpowersystems.org Home Solar Power Systems

    Social networking sites permit for leaking personal information of web user

  • http://www.dotCOMReport.com DotCOMReport

    This can be a scary reminder to pay attention to what you are sharing and where you are sharing it.

  • Guest

    This is why I do not use MySpace or FaceBook, I only use www.SanFranciscoGrapevine.com, because they do not do this kink of thing. Also because they do not allow any add on apps that can infect my computer.

  • http://www.perthspanking.info Eric Carwardine

    G’day, folks :)

    Long live the leak. May it become a flood. Because, as Winston Churchill famously observed, “You can give the enemy all the information he wants. What you cannot give him is the ability to use it.”

    Eric Carwardine, in Perth, Western Australia

    • http://www.interdependentproject.org Dandarius

      We totally agree with you Eric – it seems like most people who commented on this are off the wall paranoid and most likely are Baby Boomers who have had an ongoing fear of the internet in general – and the person who posted this article is pretty much a flamer contributing to old school US vs.Them paradigms. Come on WebPro – post something that is actually meaningful and not something that promotes more fear among the ignorant. A structure is only as sound as the minds who inhabit it. Let the flood gates open!

  • Bill

    This has been the most troubling part of the social networking sites from the beginning.

  • Larry Hearold

    I really think that “social networking” sites are the most stupid thing ever. If I want to “socialize” I’ll do it face to face, not with some unknown clown who may or may not be who they claim to be. But, look how many morons there are in the world today. All you have to do is look at the membership of thoses sites to find them.

  • http://Lillicotch.com Jim L

    Many years ago a friend of mine who was into this new thing called the Internet told me that if you post anything online (including email) it’s there for everyone to see and will NEVER go away. Act accordingly.

    The longer I live the more I know it’s true.

  • http://www.patrickmcmurray.com Patrick McMurray

    I don’t like socializing, besides I’m a capitalist.

  • http://www.beebleberry.com Michelle

    Google does exactly the same thing. They have my interests listed in their system spot on – and I have never actually told them what they are.

  • http://justintvjustintv.blogspot.com Guest
  • Guest

    the Government has been tracking us for at least 8 years any one so blind and stupid, who does not realize this needs to get off the net.
    What they use the information for is not for tracking terrorists but tracking the people of America. medical and other things may prevent people from getting work but the truth is its far too late to catch the illegal actions going on they say they want justice for all thats a load of
    dung. the rich stay rich because they think the poor are dumb. it’s a sad commentary that web pro and others have not used bold print long ago to spread the word about what the powers that be have been doing to subvert our freedoms and our rights.

    • Guest

      You moron, the govt hasn’t been tracking us, Google has! Govt surveillance is the least of our worries – its media corruption protecting stooges like Obama who took fat bribes (oops, I mean “campaign contributions”) from sleazy Google which will now data mine everything we do on the net. Why do you think Google embeds GPS in the GPhone?

  • B.

    For the most part, I agree with the thought that you don’t share much online that you wouldn’t share with a total stranger (even less, since you can at least size up someone in front of you). But I was recently “talked into” joining a business-networking type of social site, to see if it could bring in some much needed business. (Lord, save me from well-meaning friends.) I didn’t give them much info, no pics, just the basics of what we offer, and how to contact us.

    I was recently surprised by an email requesting an introduction, from a banking recruiter (nowhere near my industry). Upon further investigation, I found 3 people had accessed my info, all ‘banking recruiters’. Most of their info was vague, but an email address on one of them gave me a clue. They were trawling for info from a Russian host/server, and this isn’t the first time I’ve been hit from Russia, or through an Italian bounce server address. (We won’t even talk about China, and continental Africa.) Needless to say, I declined the invite.

    So please keep in mind that, not only is your info going out throughout your own country, it’s being accessed on a global scale! Don’t post every stupid, unflattering picture you ever took (that WILL come back to bite you in the butt), and please keep your personal info, … personal.


  • http://www.faceamania.com Pete

    I agree wholeheartedly with the article. The main reason we setup our own social networking site was due to the huge privacy issues with other sites. The recent news regarding facebook breaching Canadian privacy laws says it all. On our site we do not sell a users data, we do not data mine anything and if a user deletes their account then all of their information is permanently deleted when they hit the delete button.

  • Evelyn

    It’s good to make people aware of what’s going on–most people don’t know. I do scan my computer everyday and take out things that have privacy issues and there’s a lot–I couldn’t believe my eyes (thousands). Thanks for making us aware and reminding us of what’s going on, and for the others that have also commented. I won’t connect with anyone outside the U.S. again–that’s scary.

  • Guest, New Jersey

    Since I started to social network, I have been flooded with spam and weird invitations to collect money from long lost dead relatives in foreign countries. I have been on-line with social networks for about 6 months.I can’t imagine how many solicitations and spam I will receive in another 6 months. Before social networking, I never had a problem with uninvited visitors.

  • Beck

    Well, the cat is already out of the bag. You cannot educate people who are already addicted, because it falls upon deaf ears. Besides that, ego is now a big part of it. Folks like to hear and see themselves. The other part is that it’s becoming a super mega connection feature for anyone who is in business. Therefore, it is translating into dollars and cents. What was started probably as a neat little gimmick, has now become in immediate fix for both ego and the bank account. Those are extremely powerful notions.

    I finally caved and have a fairly new facebook account, only because my high school reunion folks insisted we all be connected. However, even though I have very little personal info on my profile, and no personal pics, I still have to fight an influx of a lot of spam and cookies. Yes, I am considering deleting my profile, simply because I do like my privacy. However, nothing is private anymore. Internet has made personal invasion amazingly convenient. Anything online can be hacked. I have always felt that to be true.

    Yes, they can track our online habits. They can tap our phones. They can see and hear through our walls. If it’s not big brother, then it’s some criminal hacker or a PI. However, that is the price we pay for technology. Is it progress? I’m not sure yet. I’m thinking it’s something far worse than we can imagine, and it’s in the guise of progress. It just hasn’t come to light yet. Time will tell.

  • Wayne Beeman

    The problem is well announced with this article. However the problem is larger than this! For decades the US Pentagon with a huge bank of computers has been monitoring phone calls across the United States. They for the most part do a wandering spot check of conversations listening for key words, like gun, bomb, conspiracy, assasination, attack, chemical virus, chemical weapon, etc.

    Once a word has been captured, that phone line becomes a permanently visited factor within the system. If the repeated action of these type of words are heard, the phone goes under 24 hour monitor. It was designed to help protect the countrywhich is a good thing, but it is also privacy invasion, BIG BROTHER in real life.

    The larger problem is hackers who have been able to access anything in n or on the internet with time, and they have access to the same computers that are monitoring our telephone systems.
    The Government is aware of this, but defending it is clearly difficult. If a computer engineer can set up a defense, another can go around it. It isa very complex problem with both computers as well as pnone system that hemorage information on all people using them as a pert oftheir lives, meaning everyone these days.

  • Guest

    Honestly, it doesn’t really bother me.

    • Guest

      Sweet! Can I have your bank account number , user name, password and the answer to your secret question? since you have nothing to hide . . .

  • Frankenstone

    Well, it’s like so many “incremental invasions” of privacy. You may not think it affects you, until years down the track there is enough information gathered to have a pretty accurate profile of YOU, the person. Even comments like these could be monitored and slotted into a category. As the story goes with the frog and hot water… We may all be cooked before we realise that we should have jumped out yonks ago. BEWARE!

  • http://www.camfeellas.com S

    Its a shame that the privacy of user datas is not anonymus.
    If they want they cann track you all the time. Nevermind dont think about it.

  • Guest

    Anyone who’s surprised by this is either naive or stupid as data mining and resale is the core business model of social networking – does anyone read TOUs/EUAs? (hint: “…to enrich the user experience” is code for “we’re going to use your info to spam you and anyone you interact with”).

    Next, lay in GPS functionality and your location and movement history will become, as the nuns used to threaten me with, “part of your permanent record.” Now that is some scary stuff. Remember the recent “shocking” news that Palm was pinging feeds from the Pre to track user app and device behaviour?

    Call me a square but this is why I don’t use social networking sites or gmail etc. Twitter is pure vanity and gossip and not a credible source of “online conversations” upon which to base any business decisions (but we do use it for PR and opinion maniplation)

    I’m reminded of the old saying, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the monring paper.” Well, use social networking sites at your own peril. Anything you post or do will be used against you. Fools.

  • http://www.yummybouquets.com Guest

    I agree that this has been the biggest issue with social networking sites. I do agree that this isn’t even new issue. You must use them with all this in mind. Great posts here.

  • Guest

    why in the world do u all care?????????….unless ur looking up on how to kill the president…or something illegal…who gives a shit

    • Guest

      What about the poor Terrorists. Nobody ever thinks about their feelings.

    • Guest

      I’m glad you also fell this way!

      Please post your SSN, Phone, Address and bank account numbers here.

      I’m poor and would like to tap into your bank account. I f ?I can’t have that info, can I at least sell the info about your web history to your insurance agency, any insurance company you try to purchase services from, your credit history, the drugs you and everyone in your family has ever taken etc.

      All this is very valueable information, lots of business pay several dollars a person to get this info!

      If you really don’t think it’s private then please help a brotha out!

  • http://www.7circumstances.com Vevstad

    Google Wave, coming this fall, will advance this trend greatly. It’s a communications and collaboration tool that will tie in just about all Internet activities. You can learn how to surf the wave safely, or you can let the wave crush you. Your choice. Google Friend Connect (GFC), a precurser to Google Wave, is already operational, and I have included some information on it, as well as a link to it, on my blog, http://www.7circumstances.com. Check it out.

  • Guest

    Dandarious…time to get your head out of the sand!

  • Guest

    I am scared to go outside after reading this. Hidden number ? wow !!

  • Guest

    Mmmm its scary. Google stole my information before which caused my cousin to be raped by a pack of wild dogs in the Canadian volcanos. Thats why my cars tires on my car keep needing to be changed. A good thing has come out of this in the past though. Man walked on the moon and Jesus lives down the road from me.

    But I say BEWARE! Before you know it your dog will be licking his genitals in public more than 5 times a day causing mass panic and a hit new series starring Rosy odonnel.

  • http://www.hdvideoconvertermac.com/ HD Video Converter for Mac

    That’s not easy to solve. People want to know others info, also people don’t want somebody to know his info.

  • 5A88Y

    Nothing and no-one can be trusted, nowadays! I really like social networking sites, but now they can’t be trusted, either… what a shame.

  • http://www.loveshade.org Alden Loveshade

    Privacy, while not specifically guaranteed in many nation’s constitutions, has been regarded as a fundamental right in a democratic government. But technology is quickly taking that away.

    I remember when it took a professional skip tracer days or even weeks to track a person down who can now be found online by an amateur in 15 minutes. I also remember when a professional webpage designer told me she learned how to access people’s marital status and mortgage records online. That frightened me. But those were the long-ago days, back in the late 1990s. People weren’t thinking about how much of their personal information could be gained online, and there was little security.

    Now that online security has greatly advanced, so has the ease with which you can access anyone’s personal information.

    It’s a cliche’ to say we’re living in the age where “Big Brother is watching you.” But it’s not just the government big brother who’s watching you, it’s big brother business, and little brother your next door neighbor, and even the guy you knew 10 years ago who now lives 3,000 miles away. He might be checking to see where you go online, or watching you through someone else’s hidden camera. Walk a block downtown, and you could be recorded dozens of times. Visit a website you wouldn’t want your boss or spouse or sother to know about, and they may well know.

    Of course it works both ways. For a small fee, you can now sit in your living room and learn a great deal about that guy who lives 3,000 miles away, and your boss and your sother. Today, you can easily collect personal information that used to be difficult for even law enforcement to gather.

    And that’s the reason privacy is disappearing. People have a drive for their privacy. But those same people love gossiping about, and snooping on, others. Their drive is to spy on their neighbors, and the drive of business is to make money by any (hopefully legal) means.

    Like it or not, and I don’t, but technology has made privacy an endangered species.

  • Guest

    I do not like the third party cookies at all. Its a privacy thing with myself. Thats how we all end up with our inboxes full on a daily basis. I know that somebody pays for that service but we on the nertwork are open to all the mayhem in the world not to mention the crazys!!

  • http://buildersaccounting.com Robert

    Anyone familiar with database technology will understand that even small amounts of data can be viewed many ways and broke down into the smallest of components. Even the addition of one single piece of data to the original dataset will expand the dataset many times. Linking your personal profile to what you have posted on the social site would expand the dataset to a mind boggling size allowing for the possibility to extract a huge amount of information about you. Most of this information is already there but using the GUID or unique identifier to automate the process is not acceptable. I do not see this subject mentioned in the privacy policy of the sites so allowing this to happen could open the sites up to legal or FCC issues. They should stop now!

  • http://www.blindacre.com BlindAcreMedia

    A unique identifier, unfortunately it’s the price we pay to use all of the social networking sites.

    • Guest

      It doesn’t have to be . . .

      and it doesn’t have to be shared . . .

  • Dennis Binam

    Think about it this way when the internet started there was no privacy to day on the internet there is no privacy what did you all think there were internet police out there like highway patrole watching out for you



  • Guest

    Sigh! Another article to stir up the masses.

    So what…an unique identifier just means ads more custom designed to you. Sounds like just more spam to delete on a daily basis. Not using third party cookies helps in that somewhat.

    And the invasion of privacy is only upsetting if you have something to hide. Your information was out there before the advent of the Internet. And you had to hope and pray that the companies that had this information used it properly, didn’t sell it to someone else, and disposed of it properly (which I know for a fact didn’t always happen).

    Nowadays everything is online. Don’t want your boss, neighbors, whoever….to know what you do in your off hours…then don’t post it online on a social network site. Use some common sense when it comes to the Internet and the myriad of strangers that you interact with on here on a daily basis!

    You have a better chance of controlling your own information now than you did 20-25 years ago. Have you checked to see if your phone # is listed in Google which they tie to a map to direct somebody to your house? How many of you still have your social security # on your driver’s license or your personal checks??? READ the terms and conditions of every website before you input your information. If you don’t agree with their terms then don’t fill out the form.
    Those 3 are just the tips to the iceberg of controlling your own information.

    You’ve really never had privacy but you never knew that did you. The only way to guarantee absolute privacy, is be off the grid completely: no utilities, no computers, never leave your house, cancel your phone, etc etc etc.

    • Guest

      . . . And the invasion of privacy is only upsetting if you have something to hide. . .

      I’m glad you feel that way. Please post your:
      Phone Number
      Full Name
      VIN from your car
      (I use the above to make a profile about you)
      Please, a list of all illnesses in your family (I sell them to insurance companies and employers and drug companies)
      Please list all drugs you are on now or ever have been (I sell these to insurance companies and drug companies and employers)
      Please a list of all your travels (I sell them to time share marketers)
      A list of beverages you drank ( I sell this to insurance companies and employers and drink manufacturers)
      Please tell us about your reproductive organs:
      If male – how big is it?
      Does it get . . . .

      You get it by now I think?

  • Guest

    I had an eye-opening event over the weekend. I wrote a post to a blog, had to register with an e-mail address. The blog manager responded and added some information he knows about me. I had some of it on my profile page, but other information was elsewhere.

    Since then I set all my privacies to within my contacts.

    Also note Web 4.0 is going to really be nosy. Supposed to be helpful in directing searches and things in your interest, but it is all information that will be able to be used against you.

    I had a boss fifteen years ago who avoided as much as possible in giving his social security number. This was when internet browsers were in their infancy. It was Mosaic back then.

    Young people think they have nothing to lose by doing social network. It’s wrong. You basically showed yourself naked when you have your info on those social network sites.

    I think privacy issues could wake up enough people who will result in a massive boycott of social networking. It’s nice to be in the underground. If I could afford it, I’d even move to San Francisco or Manhattan and throw away my driver’s license.

  • http://www.kazeebo.com KreaThor

    Data leak cannot be prevented. There is always somebody lurking around to get information like this. The reason? SPAM!! It’s always about SPAM marketing technique.

    I don’t really mind if they want to know my browsing habits as this will help certain parties to make something better for it but what I’m concern about is they revealing the private data (name, age etc.)

    By joining social networking (the word social network itself) means you are agreed to display your details information. So how to prevent this? Just don’t join any social network unless you want to be famous on the net!!

  • http://deck-boards.com Deck Boards

    I’ve already stopping using sites like facebook as soon as I saw how much info they were willing to give to me as an advertiser and developer.

    It’s just insane.

    I hate to say it but we need to make some laws and do something about this because this crap ain’t right…

    Freaking pervs is what these people are.

  • Guest

    “Wills says social networks go to far”

    Think that should be “too far” guys unless there’s a place called Far somewhere out there on the interwebs :)

    And Facbooks increasing dominance in social media is a worry precisely because they seem so blase about privacy issues, I joined because I liked the walled garden approach but as it has become increasingly open and the privacy settings have been repeatedly loosened it’s lost a lot of it’s appeal – especially as they’ve now decided to remove Facebook Lite which was far more usable than the sites current incarnation.

  • http://www.zahrawy.net/forum/member.php?u=54841 Chris Alves

    thank you for blogging that. I loved following it. Will be back soon.

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