17 December 2010

User Tracking Opt Out

Online behavioral advertising continues to be in the news (see also previous here, here and here). The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has now issued a preliminary staff report which has been widely discussed (including here, here, here and here.)

The FTC's work was prompted by the lack of success with "notice-and-choice" and "harm-based" models to provide adequate and meaningful consumer protection, despite various industry initiatives such as self-regulation. The FTC report proposes a new framework and suggests organisations should adopt a privacy-by-design approach in their information systems and business processes, provide greater clarity in explaining their use of personal data and, for practices that are not "commonly accepted", provide information so that people can make informed and meaningful choices. One example of this, and the aspect which seems to have the most attention, is the ability for consumers to make a universal choice whether they allow their data to be used in behavioural advertising i.e. have the ability not to be tracked. And the FTC suggests organisations need to make their actions more transparent, and also help in the effort to educate consumers.

Note, the FTC document refers to "consumers" due to their area of responsibility, but the concepts could/should also be relevant to other personal data (e.g. employees, citizens).

But what does "no tracking" mean? There are already some initiatives in this area (e.g. the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) Opt-out Tool and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Self-Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising). The FTC has testified that the mechanism should be browser based allowing consumers to opt out easily and permanently. There has been debate about how "Do Not Track" might be achieved online, and a suggestion is organisations honour a new HTTP header. The "X-Do-Not-Track" header would be sent if the user (consumer?) had set this as their preference (or not deselected it?). See http://donottrack.us/ for more discussion.

Tracking might involve cookies and recording data such as the type of device, configuration, user location & IP address, and using this to serve targetted "behavioural advertising".

Extract from a web server log file showing the user's IP address recorded together with other data such as the requested URL

Cleaning your own web server log files of tracking data is not going to be enough.

Extract from an amended web server log file where the user's IP address, user agent and referrer are not recorded

Any system that receives HTTP requests, including advertisers would have to honour the setting. But this does not just apply to advertisements. Look for anything hosted on another system such as:

  • inline content (news, images, videos)
  • JavaScript libraries
  • trust seals (e.g. SSL certificate verification, privacy seals, trust schemes, tested for security, etc)
  • web analytics
  • widgets (e.g. buttons).

And these might be server from your own systems, not just third parties. Personal data may also be stored by the application on the user's own system locally. The question also arises what exactly constitutes "tracking", and whether audit and security event logs would be considered as tracking. Even traffic management and anti denial-of-service (DoS) systems track users to a degree, as of course does session management. Practices necessary to perform the designated service are likely to be acceptable, providing data are not kept indefinitely, and it is the usage for purposes which the user might not have expected, which is the real concern. Do users "expect" seceuity event logging? The examples on the http://donottrack.us/ discuss prevention of logging in web server log files, not other usages such as session management or incident monitoring. So guidance will be required.

The issue of tracking and personal data leakage may come as a surprise to some web site owners, and it was to the NHS, but is rather old news really. Like knowing all the components that make up your web site, and all the allowable entry points, knowing where you are sending data really is a baseline information requirement. The NHS example relates primarily to leakage of sensitive data to other parties, and the Obama example to security risks (see extended explanation.) The results of the FTC's final report next year will affect internet users worldwide as similar policies are likely to be adopted in other countries.

The FTC is asking for comments on its proposals by 31st January 2011. Their own suggested questions are listed in Appendix A of the report.

Posted on: 17 December 2010 at 12:30 hrs

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