Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: How Google and its 100 friends are tracking you

Patrick Stafford /

It’s obvious Google tracks everyone on the internet. That fact has been well known for years now and despite what people may think about the matter, Google is hard at work tracking what everyone searches and the terms they’re using to do so.

But more users don’t actually know that when they browse to a popular website, that data is actually being sent to a number of different companies, including subsidiaries, data-tracking sites and a variety of smaller companies. 

Even if you know all this, the actual number of companies tracking your information may astound you. And as this piece in The Atlantic points out, there are at least 100 businesses tracking your every move. 

“Allow me to introduce the list of companies that tracked my movements on the Internet in one recent 36-hour period of standard web surfing: Acerno. Adara Media. Adblade. Adbrite. ADC Onion. Adchemy. ADiFY. AdMeld. Adtech. Aggregate Knowledge. AlmondNet. Aperture. AppNexus. Atlas. Audience Science.”

“And that’s just the As,” it points out. “My complete list includes 105 companies.”

That’s a huge amount of businesses tracking your moves. And even if they aren’t assigning your data to your actual name, it’s enough to make people wary about what they search for and how they do it. 

It’s all an advertising game. Businesses are tracking data in order to find out how people are clicking ads and which ones they’re more likely to click on. But there are all sorts of issues about whether you can really be considered “anonymous” if a tracking company is looking at your every move.

“This is a double-edged sword. The current levels of machine intelligence insulate us from privacy catastrophe, so we let data be collected about us. But we know that this data is not going away and yet machine intelligence is growing rapidly. “

“The results of this process are ineluctable. Left to their own devices, ad tracking firms will eventually be able to connect your various data selves. And then they will break down the name wall, if they are allowed to.”

If you’re curious about the data-tracking process, then this is a great piece. It raises great issues about how the industry could potentially be harmful if the ‘name barrier’ is ever dropped. But moreover, it shows that whether we like it or not, Google, and its digital friends, aren’t going to stop watching any time soon.

Microsoft raids offices to catch botnets

Microsoft has always been about protecting its customers, regularly releasing updates for the Windows operating systems to ensure everyone is safe from cybercrime. But now it’s going a step further, actually raiding office buildings in the United States in order to disrupt botnets – groups of computers linked together to steal personal information.

According to this story over at the New York Times, Microsoft won a warrant from a federal judge that allowed its lawyers and technical staff to gather evidence and deactivated servers allegedly used by criminals to infect computers and steal data.

Botnets are one of the biggest threats facing online security today, and Microsoft’s actions suggests it’s upping the ante in the fight against cyber crime.

“Microsoft has a big interest in making the Internet a safer place. Despite inroads made by Apple and others in some parts of the technology business, Microsoft’s Windows operating system still runs the vast majority of the computers connected to the Internet,” the story points out.

“The prevalence of its software has made Windows the most appealing target for online criminals, and the security holes they discover in the software are a persistent nuisance for Windows users.”

However, some of Microsoft’s finds haven’t revealed many deep dark secrets, some experts say, and point out that cyber criminals are becoming harder to catch. But according to the company, they’re just getting started.

“The plan is to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt,” Microsoft lawyer Richard Boscovich said.

Buzzfeed and the new ad model of the 21st century

BuzzFeed is without a doubt a product of the Web 2.0 era. This company is built on the premise of sharing content that is likely to attract web-savvy, younger viewers. And as this piece on BusinessWeek points out – it may just be the best advertising model around.

As the piece demonstrates, this aggregator and creator of social content is pulling in 14.2 million unique views a month and the company’s president, Jon Steinberg, said it ran over 100 ad campaigns last year.

That means BuzzFeed is making revenue of around $7.5 million.

And while some people criticise the company for just aggregating content, co-founder Jonah Peretti says this is all part of a model he calls “social publishing”.

“What if you assume people’s home page isn’t your site but Facebook or Twitter or StumbleUpon, or one of these social sites?” he says. “People come to your front page to find things for those services, as opposed to coming here to get everything. There’s a big opportunity.”

Huffington Post co-founder Peretti has an affinity for how the web works. But his challenge is to convince advertisers that his site is more valuable than any other where they could spend their money.

However, he has some research to back it up. A study from Vizu found that when BuzzFeed users were exposed to ads from General Electric, they had a higher opinion of the company if they happened to find the videos through a shared link, than if they saw it directly.

BuzzFeed may not be a household name like Facebook, but if Peretti has his way it’ll be just as important.

The dangers of international cyber war

You may or may not know about the Stuxnet worm, which acted as a type of cyber-weapon that infected the networks of the Iranian nuclear program in 2010, doing massive damage and then spreading to computers across the world.

One theory is that the weapon was actually developed in conjunction with the United States. Over at the Smithsonian, cyber security expert Richard Clarke believes he has some idea.

“The US government is involved in espionage against other governments,” he said.

“There’s a big difference, however, between the kind of cyberespionage the United States government does and China. The US government doesn’t hack its way into Airbus and give Airbus the secrets to Boeing [many believe that Chinese hackers gave Boeing secrets to Airbus].”

But it’s Clarke’s answer to the question of whether there is any defence against such advanced cyber criminals that is the most chilling.

“There isn’t today,” he says.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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