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DuckDuckGo Made a Giant List of Jerks Tracking You Online

Illustration for article titled DuckDuckGo Made a Giant List of Jerks Tracking You Online
Photo: DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused tech company, today launched something called Tracker Radar—an open-source, automatically generated and continually updated list that currently contains more than 5,000 domains that more than 1,700 companies use to track people online.

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The idea behind Tracker Radar, first reported by CNET, is to share the data DuckDuckGo has collected to create a better set of tracker blockers. DuckDuckGo says that the majority of existing tracker data falls into two types: block lists and in-browser tracker identification. The issue is the former relies on crowd-sourcing and manual maintenance. The latter is difficult to scale and also can be potentially abused due to the fact it’s generating a list based on your actual browsing habits. Tracker Radar supposedly gets around some of these issues by looking at the most common cross-site trackers and including a host of information about their behavior, things like prevalence, fingerprinting, cookies, and privacy policies, among other considerations.

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This can be weedsy, especially if the particulars of adtech make your eyeballs roll out of their sockets. The gist is, that creepy feeling you get when you see ads on social media for that product you googled the other day? All that is powered by the types of hidden trackers DuckDuckGo is trying to block. On top of shopping data, these trackers can also glean your search history, location data, along with a number of other metrics. That can then be used to infer data like age, ethnicity, and gender to create a profile that then gets shared with other companies looking to profit off you without your explicit consent.

As for how people can actually take advantage of it, it’s a little more roundabout. The average joe mostly benefits by using... DuckDuckGo’s browser mobile apps for iOS and Android, or desktop browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

As for developers, DuckDuckGo is encouraging them to create their own tracker block lists. The company is also suggesting researchers use Tracker Radar to help them study online tracking. You can find the data set here.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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DISCUSSION

If you’re curious about anything to do with tracking, I work in digital marketing and live and breathe this stuff, so happy to answer any questions.

To play devil’s advocate, web tracking is usually anonymous and really helps website owners to improve the experiences on their websites. On the ads side, it just helps to customise ads to your interests (if you’re seeing them anyway, it might as well be stuff you might actually buy). The demographic data is anonymised and used to improve ad and website messaging.

E.g. if you know most of your site users are female and above 25, you’d use different images, content etc.

I work in SEO specifically, so I track how people use the websites I work for to help iron out usability issues and to see how people find the site to help allocate resources to different marketing channels.