Are you being tracked online? New research says yes — especially on the largest social media platforms out there.
Applications like YouTube and TikTok track your digital movements with more than a dozen first- or third-party tracker software. These are ‘invisible’ stretches of code that allow for the gathering of user behavioral data even when said users opt-out of sharing their personal information. The findings come from an analysis performed by Atlas VPN, a private company offering virtual private network (VPN) services, which help protect user anonymity online.
Although Atlas VPN has a vested interest in these results — as a company that sells products that work directly against tracking software — their report does align well with the hushed suspicions many of us harbor in regards to digital platforms. The findings are also validated by being part of a larger study of 200 iOS apps conducted with Apple’s Record App Activity feature.
“Internet users are starting to care more and more about their privacy, which challenges app developers to engage customers using first-party data strategies and tools,” said Vilius Kardelis, Junior PR Manager at Atlas VPN. “Currently, customers cannot see what data is being shared with third-party trackers or how their data will be used, creating a lack of transparency between the brand and the consumer.”
According to the company, YouTube contains 10 first-party trackers and 4 third-party trackers; TikTok, on the other hand, has 1 first-party and 13 third-party trackers. The difference between these two types of trackers is where they beam back the data they collect. First-party trackers send it back to the application’s domain (so, for example, one on YouTube will send it back to Google, which owns the platform), while third-party trackers send it to some other domain. The last kind is particularly concerning for most people, as the ultimate destination of the data is not shown to users, nor how it is going to be processed and used.
Social media applications analyzed in the study averaged around 6 trackers; Facebook, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and Messenger were the most modest offenders, containing a single tracker each.
TikTok recently became the most popular website worldwide, snatching that distinction from Google late last year. As such, the high number of trackers it uses, especially third-party ones, is particularly concerning. The website is also owned by a Chinese company, and all Chinese companies are required by law to provide any data that the Chinese government requires. What exactly TikTok does with all that user data is, obviously, not clear.
Data for the above-mentioned study, of which these results are also part, were obtained using Apple’s Record App Activity feature. This allows users to track which apps on their device connect to networks. Each of the studied apps was downloaded, started up once, and not registered, to determine a beginning set of connections.
Unsurprisingly, in the last few years, businesses selling powerful proxy services or VPN services have boomed. A proxy service (whether it’s an individual proxy or a datacenter proxy) acts as an intermediary between a user and the server while a VPN extends a private network across a public network, enabling the user to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if they were using a private network. This increased demand in proxies and VPNs comes down to better technological infrastructure and capability, but it is undeniably driven by increased demand from the public for internet anonymity and privacy. Findings such as these validate this consumer desire, showcasing the incredible extent to which our behavior is tracked and monetized online without our consent.
Oh, and if you thought social media was the worst offender, think again. These apps, in fact, made the fewest network connections among the 20 categories of apps that the study investigated. Apps by magazines, news, and sports applications made the most with 26, 21, and 18 connections upon download respectively. Most of these were third-party trackers.
There’s no reason to believe that companies will track us any less in the future. Such behavior is a lucrative business and, unless customers and lawmakers don’t push against it, companies are unlikely to give up a golden goose.