Berkeley Law’s first Web Privacy Census is out and it’s troubling

Popular Web sites are far more aggressive in their consumer-tracking practices than most people suspect, according to the first report of UC Berkeley Law School’s Web Privacy Census, and consumers are trapped in an escalating privacy crisis with limited control over their personal information.

The main goal of the census is to “define and quantify vectors for tracking consumers on the Internet,” in essence to create a critically needed evaluation component to measure the ever-changing and often-evasive methods companies use to track visitors.

Not surprisingly, the quarterly report released yesterday saw that all of the top 100 sites use cookies to track users and visitors, though overall cookie use appeared to be on the decline.

What it found instead is that Web sites are increasing their use of HTML5 local storage — objects like tracking software placed on a user’s computer — and that the use of this tracking method has doubled in the past year.

To conduct the census, Nathan Good, chief scientist of Good Research, and Chris Jay Hoofnagle, director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, worked with privacy company Abine to collect data from the top 100, 1,000, and 25,000 most popular Web sites.

The technical collaborator for the census, Abine is a consumer-level privacy company with a suite of tools and products that help individuals take control of their online data privacy. Its specialty is understanding and monitoring how people are tracked online. But Abine is also a company that regularly takes data-mining companies to task when they abuse people’s privacy rights, distributes anti-tracking tools (such as browser plug-ins), and prides itself on privacy activism.

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