I just installed a tool which shows how popular websites are spying on me. The results are horrifying

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 4, 2014

From The News Desk

Ever had the feeling someone is watching you? Of course you have, you paranoid weirdo.

Online, though, a feeling of being monitored isn't paranoia, it's mundane fact. Pretty much every page you visit contains at least one piece of tracking code -- watching where you click, how long you stay, and how often you come back.

This I knew.

What I didn't know is how absolutely out of control the number of trackers on popular sites has become. It's actually horrifying.

Earlier today I met with an entrepreneur who is working on some neat-sounding software that allows us to improve our "related articles" recommendations for readers. To prove how many different sites already use his software, he showed me the results from a browser extension called Ghostery which shows which trackers are embedded in any given page.

Every site he visited contained at least one piece of tracking code, but some showed dozens. That's dozens of different companies, or divisions of companies, watching you every time you visit a single web page. Those creepy ads that follow you from site to site, reminding you about products you once looked at? Yeah -- that's one tracker. Imagine how much a dozen trackers know about you.

Duly horrified, I just installed the extension myself and spent some time visiting other tech sites, other media organizations and a few other popular destinations. Want to know the results?

Of course you do, you paranoid weirdo.

In the interests of fairness, let's start with Pando which has a frankly ludicrous 15 different trackers. Bear in mind I'm in charge of product here and I know what maybe four of these things actually do...

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So. How do we compare with other tech site, like, say, TechCrunch...?

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Or Re/Code...?

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Or Vox?

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Or Fox News?

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Also 26!

Ok, let's have some fun. It's pretty funny that the NSA only uses one piece of tracking code...

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...while Glenn Greenwald's page on anti-NSA site, The Intercept, has four times as many pieces of code monitoring its visitors...

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Still, at least the Intercept is less spy-y than Gawker, the previous employer of its editor in chief, John Cook...

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What's interesting about Gawker is that it includes code for SkimLinks, a service which automatically turns mentions of products into affiliate links. So every time Gawker mentions a product or service they can turn that mention into $$$s without users realizing. This fact is curiously absent from their privacy statement. For its part, Skimlinks says...

As a leading player in the affiliate marketing space, we encourage all our publishers to comply with the FTC guidelines that state “the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

I've spent maybe an hour visiting every possible site I could think of, from personal homepages to the biggest sites on the web and wasn't able to find a single site that wasn't tracking me in some way.

By far my favorite though, is Alex Jones', a site dedicated to paranoia about how the US government is spying on regular Americans. Surely if anyone would be respecting his users' right to surf anonymously it'd be Jones, right?

Yeah. Not so much...

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You can install Ghostery here. Try not to have nightmares.