Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Data Brokers Are Pervasive in Daily Life and Growing

A huge, groundbreaking study from Cracked Labs shows the scale of big data collection in nearly every aspect of daily life. Wolfie Christl:

One major reason that corporate tracking and profiling has become so pervasive lies in the fact that nearly all websites, mobile app providers, and many device vendors actively share behavioral data with other companies.

A few years ago most websites began embedding tracking services that transmit user data to third parties into their websites. Some of these services provide visible functionality to users. When a website shows, for example, a Facebook like button or an embedded YouTube video, user data is transmitted to Facebook or Google. Many other services related to online advertising remain hidden, though, and largely serve only one purpose, namely to collect user data. It is widely unknown exactly which kinds of user data digital publishers share and how third parties use this data. At least part of these tracking activities can be examined by everybody; by installing the browser extension Lightbeam, for example, one can visualize the hidden network third-party trackers.

A recent study examined one million different websites and found more than 80,000 third-party services that receive data about the visitors of these websites. Around 120 of these tracking services were found on more than 10,000 websites, and six companies monitor users on more than 100,000 websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Oracle’s BlueKai. A study on 200,000 users from Germany visiting 21 million web pages showed that third-party trackers were present on 95% of the pages visited. Similarly, most mobile apps share information on their users with other companies. A 2015 study of popular apps in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and the US found that between 85% and 95% of free apps and even 60% of paid apps connect to third parties that collect personal data.

Consider that there are thousands of these companies. Consider, too, that many of them share information between themselves, and that you won’t necessarily know when you’re providing information to any of these companies because, oftentimes, the privacy policy on different websites won’t always disclose which trackers and advertising scripts they are using at any given time. Finally, consider that there’s virtually no way to opt out of this kind of mass data collection, because it’s largely beyond your control.