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Report Finds Internet Anti-Trackers Insufficient

Internet users looking to stop companies from tracking them online are having a hard time using common opt-out tools, according to a report from Carnegie Mellon University.

The growth of Online Behavioral Advertising (OBA) — advertising that targets individuals based on their online activity — has some privacy advocates pressing for more regulations limiting the information that companies can gather.

CMU researchers tested nine opt-out tools, including privacy options in popular browsers, as well as plug-ins for blocking access to certain websites. They found that all of them had usability problems, with most people having trouble installing and configuring the tools correctly.

Lorrie Cranor, director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory (CUPS), said there are many reasons why companies don't provide better anti-tracking tools. "There's a variety of different tracking technologies available, and there's many different companies that are tracking people in different ways," said Cranor. "So it's not all that straight forward for the companies to provide the opt-out. And what we found is that is seems that a lot of the tools that are out there really haven't undergone any usability testing, or if they did, it doesn't appear they did a very good job."

She said a big problem is that most opt-out downloads had inappropriate default settings. When people download anti-tracking tools, they expect them to block tracking, but default settings don't. There were also communications problems: most anti-trackers were too technical for people to understand.

Cranor said that not all tracking devices or "cookies" are bad. "Maybe you actually want ads that are targeted for your interests, rather than random ads that you're not interested in," said Cranor. "So some of these things are quite useful, and it's really different today for a consumer to distinguish between the useful and non-useful trackers for them, and these tools don't really make it much easier."

She said that the status quo isn't working. A lot of effort is being put into developing tools to help consumers, but that all goes to waste "unless a greater emphasis is placed on usability."