Leakage Puts Social Network Users at Risk of Having Their Identity Linked With Their Browsing Behavior
A Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) study by professor Craig Wills found that the practices of many popular social networking sites can make personal information shared by users on their pages available to companies that track Web user browsing habits. The study, presented at the Workshop on Online Social Networks, part of ACM's recent SIGCOMM 2009 conference, described the method that tracking sites could use to directly link browsing habits to specific individuals.
Wills says users are given a unique identifier when they sign up with a social networking site, and when social networking sites pass information to tracking sites about user activities, they often include the identifier, giving the tracking site a profile of Web browsing activities and the ability to link that profile to a user's personal information. Wills says this is a particularly troubling practice for two reasons. "First, users put a lot of information about themselves on social networking sites. Second, a lot of that information can be seen by other users, by default." A unique identifier could give a tracking site access to a user's name, physical address, email address, gender, birth date, education, and employment information.
Wills says he does not know what, if anything, tracking sites do with unique identifiers given to them by social networking sites, and while the Web sites provide users with tools to protect themselves, the best way to prevent privacy leaks would be for social networking sites to stop making unique identifiers visible.
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