Follow the crumb trail

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Jordanna Kalkhof September 3, 2019

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Most of us are familiar with the idea of cookies – a small text file used to store information in a user’s browser. The user is then assigned a unique identifier (UID) attached to each cookie. These UIDs leave a crumb on each page you visit, allowing third-parties to not only track your browsing on a particular site, but across the web. Following this crumb trail ultimately gives companies a well-rounded profile of who you are – including information such as age, gender, political and religious views, sexual preferences, etc. This process is a foundational part of online tracking. Data privacy has been a hot topic recently and privacy protections are becoming a higher priority; however, many internet users are still unaware of how invasive online trackers can be.


Let’s take a look at an example of how a particular cookie/tracker ID can follow you as you browse:

The Tracker: ScoreCard Research Beacon

Ghostery Category: Site Analytics

Websites: Mayo Clinic, USA Today, and ESPN



In the video above, we used the Ghostery Browser Extension to show the presence of ScoreCard Research Beacon on Mayo Clinic, USA Today, and ESPN. Based on the clicks and articles from each site, one could draw these conclusions about the user:

  • The user or someone close to the user has a brain tumor
  • The user doesn’t have a savings fund
  • The user lives in or near Tampa, Florida


A Closer Look

How does ScoreCard Research Beacon connect these to a single person? Let’s dive a little deeper using dev tools.





As you can see, the same UID (12923a4aa2411654df9120g1560441045) you were assigned by ScoreCard is used across all three sites. This would be the case on all sites you visited with that particular tracker/cookie. There are thousands of companies that utilize this type of data collection. Some of these companies are data brokers – collecting and selling large amounts of data that is useful to other companies – and others are ad platforms, such as Google and Facebook – using this data to optimize targeted ads.


Should you care?

There is no right or wrong answer here. Whether or not you should care that companies are tracking you is based on personal preference. John may not care that Company X know he’s male, 27, has a brain tumor, is about to file for bankruptcy, lives in Tampa, and watches porn on Friday nights; but Susan, on the other hand, feels like it is a complete violation of privacy for a company to know these types of details about her life. Many of us fall somewhere in between.


How Ghostery Can Help

At Ghostery, we don’t believe in telling users what their privacy preferences should be; instead, we strive to educate everyone on what’s happening in the background as they browse and give users as much control over their privacy as possible. Users can customize their blocking settings on a tracker-to-tracker and site-to-site basis. The choice is yours!

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