Abine, a company that specializes in Web privacy, has upgraded a Firefox extension that can more precisely block ad networks and websites from tracking users’ behavior.
The extension is called the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out or TACO. The extension was designed to stop websites from setting cookies, or small data files, within a person’s Web browser, which can then later be read by the company and used to track people’s movements on their websites.
Cookies can also hold other data that can be used to more precisely target advertisements. Users are often unaware of this tracking or to the extent to which their Web browsing is being watched. Widely used advertising networks such as Google’s DoubleClick or Microsoft’s Atlas can potentially watch much of a user’s behavior if they visit sites using those networks.
“If you go to any sites with DoubleClick, they’re just in real time watching your Web browsing,” said Andrew Sudbury, Abine’s CTO and founder.
TACO allows people to block some 123 advertising networks that use behavioral targeting. In its latest 4.0 version, Abine has also added the ability to block other items that pop up on pages such as Facebook’s pervasive “Like” button, Sudbury said.
TACO allows people to turn that feature off on a site-by-site basis, or completely off. It can also do that with Google’s +1—a feature not related to the recently announced social network—that is similar to the “Like” button. TACO can also stop a range of Web bugs or beacons, which are one-pixel transparent bits on a website that contact external sites to report activity.
Keeping up with all of the different tracking technologies isn’t easy. Sudbury uses a specialized Web crawler to find out what tracking technologies websites are using. The most egregious ones end up in a database, Sudbury said. Abine then developed a set of rules for TACO that uses signatures to detect tracking attempts.
When TACO is running, users can see in a pop-up window what tracking technologies are used and then selectively block them.
A visit to the popular TechCrunch.com blog showed eight tracking methods used: Facebook Connect, Quantcast, Comscore Beacon, Wordpress Stats, Google +1, Google Analytics, Omniture and Chartbeat.
Sudbury said the tracking is getting more tricky. “People are being taken advantage of online because these companies know people don’t know how to deal with these things,” he said. “I think people should have the choice to get back in control.”
A simple way to fix the problem is the Do Not Track idea, which would allow a user to opt out of behavioral advertising by sending an HTTP header to a website informing the site the user does not want to be watched. Firefox now has a feature that allows people to tell websites they don’t want to be tracked.
But although there is widespread support from privacy campaigners and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, hardly any websites have been retooled to respect Do Not Track since there are no laws in the U.S. mandating it.
Europe is struggling with the issue as well despite having a law that came into force in May requiring websites obtain explicit consent from visitors before storing cookies. Four countries—Denmark, Estonia, The Netherlands and the U.K.—have indicated they are making moves to comply with it, while other European Union countries have ignored it.