Study Finds Online Privacy Tools Ineffective

By John Wagley

Tools that aim to let Web surfers block companies from tracking their online surfing are currently ineffective, according to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University. Many available tools are challenging for users to configure and sometimes hinder users’ overall Web surfing experience, the study found.

One way to make the tools more effective could be to simplify configuration, giving users one or just a few major decisions to make about the type of tracking they find acceptable, according to Lorrie Cranor, director of Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, which conducted the study. Currently, users sometimes need to choose individual companies to block out of long lists, for example.

The study looked at nine available tools meant to help users block online tracking, which advertising companies sometimes conduct to present Web surfers with more targeted advertisements. Some of the tools that were tested by the study’s 45 participants were built into major Web browsers. Other tools let users go to advertising industry Web sites and then choose certain advertising companies to block. Some tools focus on blocking Web tracking “cookies” and other types of technology commonly used to track online activity.

The study found “serious” usability flaws in all the tools tested. In many cases, participants thought they had blocked certain advertisers or tracking but had not.

Another challenge was that users tended to be unfamiliar with most of the advertising companies they were sometimes given the option to block. “A lot of these [privacy tool] approaches are asking users to make detailed decisions trusting particular advertising companies, none of which they’ve ever heard of,” Cranor told Security Management. Another challenge is that lists of advertising companies to block appear to be “changing constantly.”


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