Stanford students create 'do not track' software

Dec 03, 2010 By Adam Gorlick
"We always thought Do Not Track was a great technical idea, and it has a real impact that's feasible," said Jonathan Mayer, one of two researchers who created the software.

As a government agency pushes for a "do not track" mechanism to protect online consumer privacy, a pair of Stanford researchers is developing the technology to make it work.

For about four months before Wednesday's release of the Federal Trade Commission's recommendations for increasing , Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan have been creating software that would let users opt out of third-party web tracking and tell advertisers to stop following them online.

"People get creeped out by some of the advertising that happens online," said Mayer, who is working toward a PhD in computer science and a law degree. "What concerns us is if you're on a site like Amazon and you go looking for shoes, then someone tells a behavioral service that you've been looking for shoes. So the next time you're off on another site, they'll ask if you're still looking for shoes. It feels invasive."

The students' idea for their Do Not Track program is fairly straightforward. Whenever a web browser such as Firefox requests content or sends data using HTTP – the protocol that underlies the web – it can optionally include extra information called a "header." Do Not Track adds a header that signals the user does not want to be tracked.

The technology can now be installed as an add-on for Firefox, and Mayer and Narayanan are working to make it operate with Chrome. Safari and Internet Explorer do not support their software. Once the add-on is installed, the user doesn't have to do anything else. Each time a website is visited, a do-not-track message is automatically sent.

The students, who have been working with computer science Professor John Mitchell, are also creating ways to configure web servers to honor their code.

Sending businesses and advertisers the message that you don't want to be tracked is one thing. But getting them to respect your privacy is another – and it's something that hinges on government enforcement.

"At the end of day, Congress would probably have to pass a law empowering the FTC to enforce this," said Ryan Calo, director of the Project for Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. Mayer is a student fellow at the center, and Narayanan – a postdoctoral researcher in – is a junior affiliate scholar at the center.

"The FTC could also say they are responsible for policing the Internet for deceptive and unfair practices, so if a consumer says he doesn't want to be tracked and you track him, that can be seen as an unfair practice," Calo said. "But to get the proper amount of teeth behind something like this, you really need Congress to act."

The FTC's recommendations – contained in a 79-page report that was approved unanimously by the five-member commission – are open to public comments through the end of January.

The students already have received attention from Internet companies, behavioral advertisers and government officials, and Mayer and Narayanan will continue weighing in with their ideas for how to best protect privacy for online users.

"We always thought 'Do Not Track' was a great technical idea, and it has a real impact that's feasible," Mayer said. "Now having the FTC say it's a good idea – you just can't ask for more than that on a research project."

Explore further: Twitter rules out Turkey office amid tax row

More information: donottrack.us/

Related Stories

FTC proposes 'Do Not Track' tool for Web surfers (Update 2)

Dec 01, 2010

(AP) -- Federal regulators are proposing to create a "Do Not Track" tool for the Internet so that consumers could prevent marketers from tracking their Web browsing habits and other online behavior in order to target advertising.

Report: Widespread data sharing, 'Web bugs'

Jun 02, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information released a report late Monday (June 1) showing that the most popular Web sites in the United States all share ...

They're watching you: Methods to block nosy Web advertisers

Oct 29, 2010

Virtually everything you do online is scrutinized by search engines and advertising networks that evaluate you as a potential customer based on what you search for, the sites you visit and the ads you see -- whether you click ...

Web ad group launches privacy education campaign

Dec 03, 2009

(AP) -- A group of leading Internet publishers and digital marketing services on Thursday launched an online campaign to educate consumers about how they are tracked and targeted for pitches on the Web.

Boosting online privacy

Aug 04, 2010

Hardly a month goes by without a new alarm being sounded about privacy online, either because companies are surreptitiously collecting and using data about Web users or because they're releasing information that users thought ...

Recommended for you

Twitter rules out Turkey office amid tax row

14 hours ago

Social networking company Twitter on Wednesday rejected demands from the Turkish government to open an office there, following accusations of tax evasion and a two-week ban on the service.

How does false information spread online?

16 hours ago

Last summer the World Economic Forum (WEF) invited its 1,500 council members to identify top trends facing the world, including what should be done about them. The WEF consists of 80 councils covering a wide range of issues including social media. Members come ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

JRDarby
not rated yet Dec 03, 2010
"As a government agency pushes for a "do not track" mechanism to protect online consumer privacy for which only another body in the government has a backdoor work-around..."

Corrected the article for you.
GSwift7
3 / 5 (4) Dec 03, 2010
So another few tens of thousands of high-tech jobs will move to India when all the advertising firms remaining in the US decide that it's finally time to pack up and move. This sounds great.
deepsand
5 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2010
"We always thought 'Do Not Track' was a great technical idea ..."

Easily said, if one ignores the small detail of first defining "tracking."

More news stories

Microsoft CEO is driving data-culture mindset

(Phys.org) —Microsoft's future strategy: is all about leveraging data, from different sources, coming together using one cohesive Microsoft architecture. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on Tuesday, both in ...

Floating nuclear plants could ride out tsunamis

When an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex in 2011, neither the quake nor the inundation caused the ensuing contamination. Rather, it was the aftereffects—specifically, ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Quantenna promises 10-gigabit Wi-Fi by next year

(Phys.org) —Quantenna Communications has announced that it has plans for releasing a chipset that will be capable of delivering 10Gbps WiFi to/from routers, bridges and computers by sometime next year. ...