Two German researchers have revealed some ominous data secrets at the Def Con hacking conference in Las Vegas in July, the BBC reports.
The researchers, Svea Eckert and Andreas Dewes obtained huge amounts of information from companies that gather “clickstreams” which detailed the browsing habits of three million German citizens including records of everywhere they go online.
The researchers argued such data – which some firms scoop up and use to target ads – should be protected.
The data is supposed to be anonymous, but analysis showed it could easily be tied to individuals.
People’s browsing history is regularly used to tailor marketing campaigns, but the data is not supposed to be linked to personal details.
The pair found that 95 percent of the data they obtained came from 10 popular browser extensions.
“What these companies are doing is illegal in Europe but they do not care,” said Ms Eckert, adding that the research had kicked off a debate in Germany about how to curb the data gathering habits of the firms.
Before the data is used to customise the advertising which people see, any information that could be used to identify exactly who generated the clicks is supposed to be removed.
However, Mr Dewes said, it was easy to tie the information directly to people and reveal exactly where they went online, the terms they searched for and the things they bought.
To prove their point they were able to reveal details of the adult-site browsing habits of a judge, a cyber-crime investigation and the drug preferences of a politician.
The data analysed by the pair connected a list of sites and links visited a customer identifier and by drawing on public information that people share about their browsing habits, it became possible to connect that entry on a list to an individual.
This, of course, poses a risk to people by putting them in a position where their personal browsing habits are revealed publically.
If you’re concerned about what you may be revealing it’s best to ask an IT expert how to minimise the ability of sites to track your data.
You can do simple maintenance like blocking cookies and clearing your cache regularly, but you really need an expert opinion based on your usage, to determine the best way to protect your privacy.