I am spying on you

by brendan on 06/1/2010

Almost all websites are, actually. When you visit a site, a little snippet of information about you is sent to that site’s log files. Same for clicking just about any link, be it a website, an ad, or a picture. So what information are you giving up?

Your IP Address
For most people your IP address is dynamic and isn’t going to give up much more than you who your ISP is (Charter, AT&T, Comcast, etc), but it will give your high-level location. ISPs have big blocks of IP addresses that they allocate to different regions where they provide service, and those will usually indicate a city or at least a state.

Your Referrer
Did you use Google to find my site? My logs will tell me that, including the search terms you used. Or if you clicked on the link to me from Jim’s blog, I may know that too. In practice, logs for this site almost never grab the referrer – probably something related to WordPress that I just haven’t gotten around to checking out. However, logs for my Aplastic Anemia site almost always do grab the referrer, so I get to see that “cyclosporine stinks” or “aplastic anemia blog” are common Google searches to find that site.

Your Browser
Firefox, Chrome, Opera, etc. This one is pretty self-explanatory. In case you’re wondering, most of my visitors use Firefox, followed by Internet Explorer (booo IE users… care to upgrade?).

Your Operating System
Windows, OS X, Linux, Solaris, whatever. This will probably also tell me if you’re visiting my site from a phone. Most of my visitors use Windows, followed by OS X, then by Linux. Still waiting for my first Solaris visitor.

Scared? You shouldn’t be. This isn’t any nefarious trick to try and trap you in some way. It’s just how the HTTP protocol works, and every website you’ve ever been to has been offered this info (whether they accepted it or not). It’s not unlike how if you roll up to my drive-through window at Wendy’s, I don’t know your name or who you specifically are, but I do know that you are male, you drive a Pontiac, and you like Frostys with your chili. It’s not really personal info so much as it is profile data about you.

Take my blog, for example. I don’t get much traffic, and the traffic I do get is mostly all from either Oregon or from Missouri. Does that help me know who you are? Not really. Most of the people I know that would visit my site, are located in Oregon or Missouri. So that’s kind of “no duh” info for me, and it doesn’t get me any closer to personally identifying my visitors. Besides, the goal of Web Analytics isn’t really to personally track individual users, so much as it is to identify characteristics of groups of users. I know that many of my visitors are from the Lou, so they’ll probably identify with a reference to the Cardinals or Mizzou. And if I want to recommend a new program, I know that it should probably be a Windows (or Mac) program, since most of my visitors would have no use for the latest Ubuntu utility. Not that I’m interested in pandering to my readership, but I probably would if I was selling ad space on my site and more visitors meant more dollars in my pocket.

What if you don’t want to have any of your data sent to me, or to any of the sites you visit? Well, that’s tough, and also probably not something the average internet user is realistically going to achieve. One thing you can do is to use a proxy to anonymize your traffic, though you’re not anonymous to the proxy itself. Tor is anonymous, but very slow. And IE, Chrome, or Firefox users can install this plugin from Google to block their data from being collected by sites that use Google Analytics (like my site).

For the record, I don’t use the GA plugin. Nor do I use Tor on my home computer (though I do use it on my phone, just because I don’t trust those fools at T-Mo). I do proxy my traffic when I’m on my laptop away from home, but not otherwise. When it comes down to it, I’m okay with sites collecting little bits of non-personal info on me. But I do understand how the web works, so I’m making a conscious choice to visit the site and allow my info to be sent. And now you also know, and you too can make your choice.

There is 1 comment in this article:

  1. 06/1/2010L says:

    How handy! I’m pleased to be visiting from Chicago and using Chrome and therefore becoming an outlier!

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