News & Politics

Millions of People Are Using a 'Do Not Track' Privacy Tool That Doesn't Work

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One of the biggest scams has been the Do Not Call Registry that was set up by the FCC to report fraudulent calls. According to call protection company First Orion, the percentage of scam phone calls has jumped from 3.7 percent of total calls in 2017 to 29.2 percent in 2018 — and it predicts that number will hit 44.6 percent by early 2019 and will keep rising until half of all calls are scams by year’s end.

But there’s another scam we’ve been fooled by — the Do Not Track (DNT) privacy tool used by millions of people. It’s the setting many of us turn on in our browser, but, in fact, it doesn’t do anything!

As described on the tech site Gizmodo, when you go to the settings on your browser you can turn on a “Do Not Track” option. It’s designed to send a request on your behalf to the sites you visit to instruct them not to track you. Based on a recent survey by Forrester Research, a quarter of American adults use this feature to protect their privacy. Or at least they think it’s protecting them.

The Do Not Track was a feature created almost ten years ago that was intended to convey a user’s request for privacy when navigating to a website. But it required that the sites respect those requests and, not surprisingly, few have. The notable exceptions are Pinterest and Medium.

Yahoo and Twitter originally agreed to respect the requests, but no longer do. And, also not surprisingly, Google and Facebook never agreed to follow the requests and have simply ignored them. Google is particularly hypocritical since their Chrome browser offers the Do Not Track option but Google just ignores it.

Jonathan Mayer, a computer science professor at Princeton University, spent four years creating the Do Not Track option and is now questioning whether it’s time to abandon it. The reason for its failure is that there’s no enforcement. The government has not given it any legal authority, leaving it to the industry to comply on their own.

While the Federal Trade Commission endorsed the idea of Do Not Track nine years ago and a technology committee created the computer code that would be sent out from the user’s computer, the ad industry objected. Negotiations between privacy advocates and the ad industry could never decide on penalties and left it to self-regulation. The industry liked the outcome, because it created the illusion of a voluntary self-regulatory process, when in fact there was none. And it derailed the need for any further regulations. Google, Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla, and others still offer the Do Not Track option in their browsers knowing it has little effect, but it gives them cover and good press.

So, we’re all victims once again of another scam and most of the tech industry is a part of it by offering an option for Do Not Track knowing that it does nothing beyond creating the false illusion that our browsing is private.

It’s a battle between the conflicting needs of the consumer and the tech industry. We can add software that tries to block tracking such as AdBlock or Ghostery. But then we hit websites that require us to turn them off in order to use the sites.

One promising solution comes from Brave, a San Francisco company. Brave has created a free browser that prevents websites from tracking its users. It lets users navigate to websites while blocking online ads as well as the nefarious ad trackers that come with them that slow down our computers. The ad trackers are what identify us and tell the advertisers what other sites we visit, allowing them to follow us across sites and devices. Brave replaces all that with advertisements from its own network while maintaining our privacy.

Gizmodo notes, “By not giving people a real choice about whether they are willing to be tracked, the internet remains locked in an arms race over privacy, with new tools and methods constantly being created to try to subvert the desires of the party on the other side of the data divide. Meanwhile, lawmakers in D.C. continue their decades of empty talk about passing a federal privacy law to regulate online data-brokering. “