The Phantom of the Internet

One of the Sunday comic strips I recall from my childhood was “The Phantom” – a masked Lone Ranger type hero in a fictional African country.  His  nickname among the natives was “The Ghost Who Walks.”

We’re all aware that websites are tracking us.  But, with free programs, you can become fairly invisible to the websites you visit.  A few months ago, I became somewhat of a phantom on the Internet…the ghost who surfs.

The program I use is called “Ghostery.”  It allows you to control what trackers, if any, you allow to be active at each website you visit.

When you first arrive at a website, a counter on a small, stylized ghost head at the top right of your screen displays the number of trackers on the site.  Clicking the counter then displays each type of tracker and its name.  You can then allow or disallow the tracker using a slider.  When you return to the website, those tracker settings are remembered.

So what kind of trackers are there? Many of them are “beacons.”

Webopedia.com defines a beacons as:

“Used in combination with cookies, a Web beacon is an often-transparent graphic image, usually no larger than 1 pixel x 1 pixel, that is placed on a Web site or in an e-mail that is used to monitor the behavior of the user visiting the Web site or sending the e-mail. When the HTML code for the Web beacon points to a site to retrieve the image, at the same time it can pass along information such as the IP address of the computer that retrieved the image, the time the Web beacon was viewed and for how long, the type ofbrowser that retrieved the image and previously set cookie values.”

I checked out the website (Krux Digital) of one of the beacons I came across. Here is a statement describing itself:  “The company’s platform helps websites protect, manage, and monetize data across all digital screens and sources”  (This site had 11 trackers.)

Anothe rtype of tracker is “analytics.”  These trackers record what exactly you do at a website. Where did you come from? Where did you first “land”? What page did you go to next? And so on.  There are many uses for this analysis.  Some of the uses are of course commercial.  That may or may not be beneficial for you.

Here’s a sampling of the trackers on popular websites…

News sites have lots of trackers.  CNN has 14, most of them beacons.  But there’s also trackers with the names “visual revenue” and “audience science.”

Screenshot of CNN homepage showing 14 trackers at upper right

Screenshot of CNN homepage showing 14 trackers at upper right

USAToday has only four trackers, two of them advertising. The New York Times has 15 trackers, again mostly beacons.  And, with 16 trackers, my local newspaper beats the other three news sites.

Then, there’s the two popular shopping sites.  Amazon has only one tracker and it is an advertising one. eBay has two trackers, both advertising ones.

The Google site has no trackers.  Yahoo has one but it is more than a search engine.

Facebook has one advertising tracker after you log in.  Twitter has one analytic tracker on its log-in page.  Since I don’t have a Twitter account, I don’t about trackers after that.

Each week, I visit my grocery store’s website to see the weekly sales flyer.  It has two trackers, both analytics. I also regularly visit the Wal-Greens site.  It has eight trackers, mostly beacons.

I was a bit surprised that Scottrade, which I use to buy and sell stocks online, has 11 trackers. They are mostly beacons and advertising.

Enquiring minds are no doubt wondering about WordPress.  It has six, mostly analytics.

If you want some control over being tracked as you roam the web, you can download Ghostery here.  (And no, it has no trackers…)

phantom

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12 responses to “The Phantom of the Internet

  1. This was very informative, Mr. Ghost. As you say, we do know we’re being tracked, and the thing is, I’m not sure I care. No wait, I am sure. I don’t care. I expect it. And put simply, the point is to “monetize” these websites as you quoted. Companies want to attract and retain advertisers, and must have some way to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Since I’m in the business world, I’m sympathetic to that even. Companies are in business to make money, and if they weren’t, then we wouldn’t get the benefits of their goods and services. That would be a bad thing. So I say, track away.
    And about the NSA….I don’t care about that either. It actually amused me that people were so shocked. I just wanted to ask, What about this surprises you? Walmart has been doing it for years.

    • The issue for me is “informed consent.’

      It’s one thing if a website *asks* if it can track me and tells me what it intends to do with that info so I can make a decision about whether to allow it. I do allow trackers on some websites.

      A lot of information is available anonymously to websites without trackers and which can be used to monetize the site. As a webmaster, I receive information every month about which pages are most viewed, where a viewer first arrived at the site (which is not always the “home page” if they bookmarked a a specific page), etc.

      I just do not have information about how a *specific* user behaved. Nor do I need it.

      These “trackers” are providing a lot more information than that. And, because most folks have high speed Internet, there is now a specific IP address attached to your computer. Of course that information is part of what is being tracked.

      With dial-up, you had a ‘dynamic” IP address. Each time you logged on, you had a new IP address. So anyone tracking you only tracked a “generic” user. Now, you are very specific.

      Want to know your IP address? Go here: (BTW, I know the IP address of all commenters; WP provides that to me.)

      http://whatismyipaddress.com/

      Notice they know what city you live in. With dial-up, the dynamic IP address was where the IP provider was. Back in the days, I had a lot of visitors from a city in Virginia that I don’t recall. A little research revealed that the city is where AOL is based. So every AOL user seemed to be coming from that city.

      Even with Ghostery, the generic information is always going to be available to the websites. But they no longer know it is me…I am the ghost who surfs.

  2. FN

    “Companies are in business to make money, and if they weren’t, then we wouldn’t get the benefits of their goods and services”

    Do you mean to say companies DID build it? Wait………I thought they didn’t, isn’t it government that builds companies? I’m so confused about what capitalism is now and whether its “sweevil” or not.

    • I pledge allegiance to Gordon Gecko and to the greed he represents. One nation, under capitalism, with profits and dividends for all stockholders.

    • I was waiting for you to reply pt 🙂 Because you seem to confuse me at times with someone who does not subscribe to capitalism. It has its ills, but is the best system we’ve come up with so far. I don’t have enough imagination to come up with a better one. I don’t think there is one. Like I said, not enough imagination.

  3. SC well your post prompted me to search for new Phantom Movies and I was rewarded with a Netflix discovery of the latest iteration from the Sy Fy channel. It was good fun and I enjoyed watching it.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1438437/

  4. https://archive.org/details/ThePhantom1943Serial-15Chapters

    The Phantom’s first movie appearance was in serials, short cliffhangers that preceeded the feature film, they kept the audience of mainly young kids coming back for each Saturday installment. They were still being shown 10 years later when I started going to the movies.

    Then Billy Zane reprised the role in 1986.

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