Posts tagged ‘FTC’

“Do Not Track” Explained

While the debate over online behavioral advertising and tracking has been going on for several years, it has recently intensified due to media coverage — for example, the Wall Street Journal What They Know series — and congressional and senate attention. The problems are clear; what can be done? Since purely technological solutions don’t seem to exist, it is time to consider legislative remedies.

One of the simplest and potentially most effective proposals is Do Not Track (DNT) which would give users a way to opt out of behavioral tracking universally. It is a way to move past the arms race between tracking technologies and defense mechanisms, focusing on the actions of the trackers rather than their tools. A variety of consumer groups and civil liberties organizations have expressed support for Do Not Track; Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Comission has also indicated that DNT is on the agency’s radar.

Not a list. While Do Not Track is named in analogy to the Do Not Call registry, and the two are similar in spirit, they are very different in implementation. Early DNT proposals envisaged a registry of users, or a registry of tracking domains; both are needlessly complicated.

The user-registry approach has various shortcomings, at least one of which is fatal: there are no universally recognized user identifiers in use on the Web. Tracking is based on ad-hoc identification mechanisms, including cookies, that the ad networks deploy; by mandating a global, robust identifer, a user registry would in one sense exacerbate the very problem it attempts to solve. It also allows for little flexibility in allowing the user to configure DNT on a site-by-site basis.

The domain-registry approach involves mandating ad networks to register domains used for tracking with a central authority. Users would have the ability to download this list of domains and configure their browser to block them. This strategy has multiple problems, including: (i) the centralization required makes it fickle (ii) it is not clear how to block tracking domains without blocking ads altogether, since displaying an ad requires contacting the server that hosts it and (iii) it requires a level of consumer vigilance that is unreasonable to expect — for example, making sure that the domain list is kept up-to-date by every piece of installed web-enabled software.

The header approach. Today, consensus has been emerging around a far simpler DNT mechanism: have the browser signal to websites the user’s wish to opt out of tracking, specifially, via a HTTP header, such as “X-Do-Not-Track”. The header is sent out with every web request — this includes the page the user wishes to view, as well as each of the objects and scripts embedded within the page, including ads and trackers. It is trivial to implement in the web browser — indeed, there is already a Firefox add-on that implements a such a header.

The header-based approach also has the advantage of requiring no centralization or persistence. But in order for it to be meaningful, advertisers will have to respect the user’s preference not to be tracked. How would this be enforced? There is a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from self-regulation via the Network Advertising Initiative, to supervised self-regulation or “co-regulation,” to direct regulation.

At the very least, by standardizing the mechanism and meaning of opt-out, the DNT header promises a greatly simplified way for users to opt-out compared to the current cookie mechanism. Opt-out cookies are not robust, they are not supported by all ad networks, and are interpreted variously by those that do (no tracking vs. no behavioral advertising). The DNT header avoids these limitations and is also future-proof, in that a newly emergent ad network requires no new user action.

In the rest of this article, I will discuss the technical aspects of the header-based Do Not Track proposal. I will discuss four issues: the danger of a tiered web, how to define tracking, detecting violations, and finally user-empowerment tools. Throughout this discussion I will make a conceptual distinction between content providers or publishers (2nd party) and ad networks (3rd party).

Tiered web. Harlan Yu has raised a concern that DNT will lead to a tiered web in which sites will require users to disable DNT to access certain features or content. This type of restriction, if widespread, could substantially undermine the effectiveness of DNT.

There are two questions to address here: how likely is it that DNT will lead to a tiered web, and what, if anything, should be done to prevent it. The latter is a policy question — should DNT regulation prevent sites from tiering service — so I will restrict myself to the former.

Examining ad blocking allows us to predict how publishers, whether acting by themselves or due to pressure from advertisers, might react to DNT. From the user’s perspective, assuming DNT is implemented as a browser plug-in, ad blocking and DNT would be equivalent to install and, as necessary, disable for certain sites. And from the site’s perspective, ad blocking would result in a far greater decline in revenue than merely preventing behavioral ads. We should therefore expect that DNT will be at least as well tolerated by websites as ad blocking.

This is encouraging, since there are very few mainstream sites today that refuse to serve content to visitors with ad blocking enabled. Ad blocking is quite popular (indeed, the most popular extensions for both Firefox and Chrome are ad blockers). A few sites have experimented with tiering for ad-blocking users, but soon after rescinded due to user backlash. Public perception is a another factor that is likely to skew things even further in favor of DNT being well-tolerated: access to content in exchange for watching ads sounds like a much more palatable bargain than access in exchange for giving up privacy.

One might nonetheless speculate what a tiered web might look like if the ad industry, for whatever reason, decided to take a hard stance against DNT. It is once again easy to look to existing technologies, since we already have a tiered web: logged-in vs anonymous browsing. To reiterate, I do not believe that disabling DNT as a requirement for service will become anywhere near as prevalent as logging in as a requirement for service. I bring up login only to make the comforting observation there seems to be a healthy equilibrium between sites that require login always, some of the time, or never.

Defining tracking. It is beyond the scope of this article to give a complete definition of tracking. Any viable definition will necessarily be complex and comprise both technological and policy components. Eliminating loopholes and at the same time avoiding collateral damage — for example, to web analytics or click-fraud detection — will be a tricky proposition. What I will do instead is bring up a list of questions that will need to be addressed by any such definition:

  • How are 2nd parties and 3rd parties delineated? Does DNT affect 2nd-party data collection in any manner, or only 3rd parties?
  • Are only specific uses of tracking (primarily, targeted advertising) covered, or is all cross-site tracking covered by default, save possibly for specific exceptions?
  • Under use-cases covered (i.e., prohibited) under DNT, can 3rd parties collect any individual data at all or should no data be collected? What about aggregate statistical data?
  • If individual data can be collected, what categories? How long can it be retained, and for what purposes can it be used?

Detecting violations. The majority of ad networks will likely have an incentive to comply voluntarily with DNT. Nonetheless, it would be useful to build technological tools to detect tracking or behavioral advertising carried out in violation of DNT. It is important to note that since some types of tracking might be permitted by DNT, the tools in question are merely aids to determine when a further investigation is warranted.

There are a variety of passive (“fingerprinting”) and active (“tagging”) techniques to track users. Tagging is trivially detectable, since it requires modifying the state of the browser. As for fingerprinting, everything except for IP address and the user-agent string requires extra API calls and network activity that is in principle detectable. In summary, some crude tracking methods might be able to pass under the radar, while the finer grained and more reliable methods are detectable.

Detection of impermissible behavioral advertising is significantly easier. Intuitively, two users with DNT enabled should see roughly the same distribution of advertisements on the same web page, no matter how different their browsing history. In a single page view, there could be differences due to fluctuating inventories, A/B testing, and randomness, but in the aggregate, two DNT users should see the same ads. The challenge would be in automating as much of this testing process as possible.

User empowerment technologies. As noted earlier, there is already a Firefox add-on that implements a DNT HTTP header. It should be fairly straightforward to create one for each of the other major browsers. If for some reason this were not possible for a specific browser, an HTTP proxy (for instance, based on privoxy) is another viable solution, and it is independent of the browser.

A useful feature for the add-ons would be the ability to enable/disable DNT on a site-by-site basis. This capability could be very powerful, with the caveat that the user-interface needs to be carefully designed to avoid usability problems. The user could choose to allow all trackers on a given 2nd party domain, or allow tracking by a specific 3rd party on all domains, or some combination of these. One might even imagine lists of block/allow rules similar to the Adblock Plus filter lists, reflecting commonly held perceptions of trust.

To prevent fingerprinting, web browsers should attempt to minimize the amount of information leaked by web requests and APIs. There are 3 contexts in which this could be implemented: by default, as part of the existing private browsing mode, or in a new “anonymous browsing mode.” While minimizing information leakage benefits all users, it helps DNT users in particular by making it harder to implement silent tracking mechanisms. Both Mozilla and reportedly the Chrome team are already making serious efforts in this direction, and I would encourage other browser vendors to do the same.

A final avenue for user empowerment that I want to highlight is the possibility of achieving some form of browser history-based targeting without tracking. This gives me an opportunity to plug Adnostic, a Stanford-NYU collaborative effort which was developed with just this motivation. Our whitepaper describes the design as well as a prototype implementation.

This article is the result of several conversations with Jonathan Mayer and Lee Tien, as well as discussions with Peter Eckersley, Sid Stamm, John Mitchell, Dan Boneh and others. Elie Bursztein also deserves thanks for originally bringing DNT to my attention. Any errors, omissions and opinions are my own.

To stay on top of future posts, subscribe to the RSS feed or follow me on Twitter.

September 20, 2010 at 4:13 pm 7 comments

In which I come out: Notes from the FTC Privacy Roundtable

I was on a panel at the second FTC privacy roundtable in Berkeley on Thursday. Meeting a new community of people is always a fascinating experience. As a computer scientist, I’m used to showing up to conferences in jeans and a T-shirt; instead I found myself dressing formally and saying things like “oh, not at all, the honor is all mine!”

This post will also be the start of a new direction for this blog. So far, I’ve mostly confined myself to “doing the math” and limiting myself to factual exposition. That’s going to change, for two reasons:

  • The central theme of this blog and of my Ph.D dissertation — the failure of data anonymization — now seems to be widely accepted in policy circles. This is due in large part to Paul Ohm’s excellent paper, which is a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. I no longer have to worry about the acceptance of the technical idea being “tainted” by my opinions.
  • I’ve been learning about the various facets of privacy — legal, economic, etc. — for long enough to feel confident in my views. I have something to contribute to the larger discussion of where technological society is heading with respect to privacy.

Underrepresentation of scientists

Living up to the stereotype

As it turned out, I was the only academic computer scientist among the 35 panelists. I found this very surprising. The underrepresentation is not because computer scientists have nothing to contribute — after all, there were other CS Ph.Ds from industry groups like Mozilla. Rather, I believe it is a consequence of the general attitude of academic scientists towards policy issues. Most researchers consider it not worth their time, and a few actively disdain it.

The problem is even deeper: academics have the same disdainful attitude towards the popular exposition of science. The underlying reason is that the goal in academia is to impress one’s peers; making the world better is merely a side-effect, albeit a common one. The incentive structure in academia needs to change. I will pick up this topic in future posts.

The FTC has an admirable approach to regulation

As I found out in the course of the day’s panels, the FTC is not about prescribing or mandating what to do. Pushing a specific privacy-enhancing technology isn’t the kind of thing they are interested in doing at all. Rather, they see their role as getting the market to function better and the industry to self-regulate. The need to avoid harming innovation was repeatedly emphasized, and there was a lot of talk about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The following were the potential (non baby hurting) initiatives that were most talked about:

  • Market transparency. Markets can only work well when there is full information, and when it comes to privacy the market has failed horribly. Users have no idea what happens to their data once it’s collected, and no one reads privacy policies. Regulation that promotes transparency can help the market fix itself.
  • Consumer education. This is a counterpart to the previous point. Education about privacy dangers as well as privacy technologies can help.
  • Enforcement. A few bad apples have been responsible for the most egregious privacy SNAFUs. The larger players are by and large self-regulating. The FTC needs to work with law enforcement to punish the offenders.
  • Carrots and sticks. Even the specter of regulation, corporate representatives said, is enough to get the industry to self-regulate. Many would disagree, but I think a carrots-and-sticks approach can be made to work.
  • Incentivizing adoption of PETs (privacy enhancing technologies) in general. The question of how the FTC can spur the adoption of PETs was brought up on almost every panel, but I don’t think there were any halfway convincing answers. Someone mentioned that the government in general could go into the market for PETs, which seems reasonable.

As a libertarian, I think the overall non-interventionist approach here is exactly right. I’m told that the FTC is rather unusual among US regulatory agencies in this regard (which makes sense, considering that the FCC, for example, spends its time protecting children from breasts when it is not making up lists of words.)

Facebook’s two faces

Facebook public policy director Tim Sparapani, who was previously with the ACLU, made a variety of comments on the second panel that were bizarre, to put it mildly. Take a look (my comments are in sub-bullets):

  • “We absolutely compete on privacy.”
    • That’s a weird definition of “compete.” Facebook has a history of rolling out privacy-infringing updates, such as Beacon, the ToS changes, and the recent update that made the graph public. Then they wait to see if there’s an outcry and roll back some of the changes. It is hard to think of another company has had such a cavalier approach.
  • “There are absolutely no barriers to entry to create a new social network.”
    • Except for that little thing called the network effect, which is the mother of all barriers to entry. In a later post I will analyze why Facebook has reached a critical level of penetration in most markets which makes it nearly unassailable as a  general-purpose social network.
  • “Our users have learned to trust us.”
    • I don’t even know what to say about this one.
  • “We are a walled garden.”
    • Sparapani is confusing two different senses of “walled garden” here. This was said in response to a statement by the Google rep about Google’s features to let users migrate their data to other services (which I find very commendable). In this sense, Facebook is indeed a walled garden, and doesn’t allow migration, which is a bad thing.  But Sparapani said he meant it in the sense that Facebook doesn’t sell user data wholesale to other companies. That sounds like good news, except that third party app developers end up sharing user data with other entities, because enforcement of the application developer Terms of Service is virtually non-existent.
  • “If you delete the data it’s gone.” (in the context of deleting your account)
    • That might be true in a strict sense, but it is misleading. Deleting all your data is actually impossible to achieve because most pieces of data belong to more than one user. Each of your messages will live on in the other person’s inbox (and it would be improper to delete it from theirs). Similarly, photos in which you appear, which you would probably like gone when you delete your account, still live on in the album of whoever took the picture. The same goes for your pokes, likes and other multi-user interactions. These are the very things that make a social network social.
  • “We now have controls on privacy at the moment you share data. This is an extraordinary innovation and our engineers are really proud of it.”
    • The first part of that statement is true: you can now change the privacy controls on each of your Facebook status messages independently. The second part is downright absurd. It is completely trivial to implement from an engineering perspective (and LiveJournal for instance has had it for a decade).

There were more absurd statements, but you get the picture. It’s not just the fact that Sparapani’s comments were unhinged from reality that bothers me — the general tone was belligerent and disturbing. I missed a few minutes of the panel, during which he apparently he responded to a criticism from Chris Conley of the ACLU by saying “I was at the ACLU longer than you’ve been there.” This is unprofessional, undignified and a non-answer. Amusingly, he claimed that Facebook was “very proud” of various aspects of their privacy track record at least half a dozen times in the course of the panel.

Contrast all this with Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in an interview with Michael Arrington, which can be summed up as “the age of privacy is over.” That article goes on to say that Facebook’s actions caused the shift in social norms (to the extent that they have shifted at all) rather than merely responding to them. Either way, it is unquestionable that Facebook’s true behavior at the present time pays lip service to privacy, and Zuckerberg’s statement is a more-or-less honest reflection of that. On the other hand, as I have shown, the company sings a completely different tune when the FTC is listening.

Engaging privacy skeptics

Aside from Facebook’s shenanigans, I feel that that there are two groups in the privacy debate who are talking past each other. One side is represented by consumer advocates, and is largely echoed by the official position of the FTC. The other side’s position can be summed up as “yeah, whatever.” When expressed coherently, there are three tenets of this position (with the caveats that not all privacy skeptics adhere to all three):

  • Users don’t care about privacy any more
  • Even if they do, privacy is impossible to achieve in the digital age, so get over it
  • There are no real harms arising from privacy breaches.

Click image to embiggen

To  the right is an illustrative example of a mainstream-media representative who was at the workshop covering it on Twitter through the lens of his preconceived prejudices.

Privacy scholars never engage with the skeptics because the skeptical viewpoint appears obviously false to anyone who has done some serious thinking about privacy. However, it is crucial to engage the opponents, because 1. the skeptical view is extremely common 2. many of the startups coming out of the valley fall into this group, and they are are going to have control over increasing amounts of user data in the years to come.

The “privacy is dead” view was most famously voiced by Scott McNealy. In its extreme form it is easy to argue against: “start streaming yourself live on the Internet 24/7, and then we’ll talk.” (To be sure, a few people did this 10 years ago as a publicity stunt, but it is obvious that the vast majority of people aren’t ready for this level of invasiveness of monitoring/data collection.) But engaging with skeptics isn’t about refutation, it’s about dealing with a different way of thinking and getting the message across to the other side. Unfortunately real engagement hasn’t really been happening.

I have a double life in academia and the startup world, and I think this puts me in a somewhat unusual position of being able to appreciate both sides of the argument. My own viewpoint is somewhere in the middle; I will expand on this theme in future blog posts.

January 31, 2010 at 3:49 am 13 comments


I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

Me, elsewhere

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 259 other followers