Thursday, February 11, 2010

Website Widgets and Ads Raise Privacy Issues | Online Social Networking

Feb

11

Larry BraunerWebsite widgets are commonplace in the world of social media. They tend to make interacting, marketing and web site tracking easier and more fun. About 16 web widgets are currently used on this blog.

However, don’t you ever question how safe web widgets really are? The use of website widgets and banner ads raises online safety and privacy issues for you and your website visitors that are worthy of consideration.

Marketing Experiment Gone Wrong

Marketing Experiment Gone WrongLast night I experimented with my web tracking software. I wanted to determine whether it would work on sites not belonging to me. I installed the required tracking code in a blog post on a Ning site and on my Ryze profile.

I very quickly uncovered a major obstacle. The JavaScript, a key element in the tracking code, had been stripped off by each of the social networking sites. All that remained was a link to a very tiny and invisible image hosted by my tracking service.

I decided to continue the test in order to see the outcome. I invited friends to visit the test pages and inspected the resulting traffic data. I saw the IP address, ISP, location, operating system and web browser for each person who had visited the test pages — and all it took was embedding an invisible one pixel by one pixel image on those pages.

Privacy and Security Implications

When you install a banner ad on your blog or other website, and that banner ad is hosted on the advertiser’s server, not yours, you give that advertiser identical information about your visitors as I was able to obtain about mine; your visitors don’t even need to click on the banner ad to make that happen.

Once an advertiser obtains an IP address, they may obtain more sensitive information as well. Some offline merchants sell data about their customers. Why not assume that some online merchants and social networking sites do the same?

They have some amount of personal information matched to an IP address, and may decide to monetize that private data. They might even state that in their privacy policy.

When you install a widget or ad on your site that contains script, the effects are more far reaching. The company that provided you with the widget code can obtain information about the source and actions of each visitor. Scripts can even be malicious, as in the case of poisoned banners. :-(

Your Due Diligence Can Help

You are responsible as a blogger or website owner to protect the privacy of your visitors as best you can. Use widgets from reputable sources and banner ads, too. If practical, host the image on your own server, as I myself generally do.

Hopefully, data that reputable third parties obtain from you and your visitors will be used for reasonable purposes, and their widget code will perform as specified. You need to take care that all third party code you embed in your site is from a reputable source.

Your turn for questions or comments. ;-)

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