Amy Jessel made the conscious decision not to buy Facebook or Google ads to promote her nonprofit company ShapingYouth.
"I went to great lengths not to monetize via Google AdSense or even sponsorship tethers," explains Jessel, founder and executive director of ShapingYouth, which aims to teach media literacy to children and their parents.
So she was surprised to learn that Google could access Shaping Youth's analytics data unless the organization took steps to hide it. This is what third-party website trackers do – even when companies think they're not exposing consumers to certain sites – and they've been raising privacy concerns for a long time.
Jessel realized how pervasive website trackers are through Blacklight, a new open source tool that exposes website tracking on a per-site basis. Its creators hope Blacklight will shed more light on who's tracking website visitors — and what can be done about it.
Caught In the Act
Like other tools before it, Blacklight lets users type in a URL and then returns a list of trackers from that website. Built by data-focused news organization The Markup, Blacklight provides dropdown lists that offer further details on trackers the website uses, including well-known web tracking tools such as Facebook pixels, cookies, and third-party ad trackers.
It also reveals when a website uses key logging, canvas fingerprinting, and session recording to monitor its visitors, and when trackers are communicating with each other — trackers telling other trackers how to track you.
Importantly, Blacklight tells users when a website has deployed Google Analytics' "remarketing audiences," which many have not heard of by name but know its consequences: It's the tech that shows you targeted, often similar or identical ads, as you visit different and seemingly unconnected websites across the Internet. The Markup hopes others will take advantage of Blacklight's open source code to build other ways of exposing website tracking.
Today's consumers need to take a more active role in how they interact with the news, said Nabiha Syed, president of The Markup, in a statement. Part of that means understanding how and why websites are tracking them.
"We want readers to view themselves less as passive consumers of news and more as proactive champions of truth. Building tools like Blacklight encourages that kind of powerful shift in mindset," she said.
That said, Blacklight doesn't provide a specific set of instructions about how to stop trackers in their tracks, except to advise that users change from Google Chrome to more privacy-focused browsers, such as Firefox or Safari, and to install the kinds of tracking blockers privacy experts have been advising consumers use going back to the early aughts. Given that Chrome dominates the browser landscape nearly as completely as its maker Google dominates Web searches, the struggle to convince consumers to start taking steps to stop online tracking can feel Sisysphean at best.
That's one of the limitations of the commercial Internet, says Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo. Weinberg, who consulted on early iterations of Blacklight, cautions against privacy nihilism and giving up the fight against Web tracking.
"You'd still be surprised how many people don't know that Google is lurking on around 85% of pages, and Facebook around 36%," says Weinberg, citing statistics from DuckDuckGo's open source Tracker Radar tool. "Blacklight is another way that you can learn how pervasive Web tracking is,"
Along with privacy, he points to another practical reason for using a tracker-blocker: It speeds up the Internet. Blocking trackers can load websites 19 times faster than if the trackers are left unencumbered, he says.
For consumers who want longer-lasting changes to how websites track them, their only recourse is to pressure politicians to ensure those protections with regulation, Weinberg advises. Relatively new, more aggressive privacy laws in Europe and California don't take the steps necessary to protect Internet users, he says.
"Nothing around the world does what we want," Weinberg adds. "It's not out there yet, but we're out there advocating for it. But it should exist."
For Jessel, who founded ShapingYouth in 2006, egregious website tracking is a betrayal of the promise of the Internet.
"Social media had an opportunity to raise voices and elevate the conversation, and instead it became a coinage and consumption race to the bottom for engagement and eyeballs," she says.