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There Are Fresher Technologies on Their Way That Keep Track of People Online

Personal computers really took off somewhere in the 1980s. But it was about 20 years ago, when the Internet came on the scene, that another technology was introduced: the computer "cookie." It was designed by a programmer at Netscape (an early browser) to help our online experiences be more efficient, even pleasurable. But it soon turned into big business. How big? About $35 billion a year in the United States alone is spent collecting data for advertisers. (For a refresher, read our article, "What is a cookie?")

For the most part, cookie technology hasn't become more sophisticated over the past two decades. That fact has allowed security software makers and browsers (Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc.) time to come up with strategies to limit or even block cookies from gathering data on us.

That was then; this is now—because the new tracking technologies that Web companies are baking up aren't like the cookies techno-Grandma made. These technologies and approaches are more robust and, more importantly, harder to detect...and therefore difficult to stop.

Tracking grows up.

This new breed of non-cookies comes in different shapes and flavors, and works in different ways. One of the programs might track you by your IP address, while another might make note of your operating system or other aspects of your online presence or behavior.

That just for starters. Software and app developers are now working in harmony to track an individual's mobile browser activity more accurately. And Google, who makes the software for Android phones, is working on ways to link your mobile-browser history to your unique app use. Why? So they can cross-reference the data, identify your likes and behaviors, and offer an attractive consumer profile of you to mobile advertisers.

Canvas fingerprinting.

One new way companies are keeping track of your website visits is through a technology called "canvas fingerprinting." When you visit certain websites, it will "ask" your computer to identify itself by "drawing a picture." It takes a "fingerprint" of your computer, so to speak, without your knowing it. But after that, every time you visit that site, it will already know you and can keep tabs on your history. It's not a very common practice yet, but it's growing. What's more, the websites privacy policies don't tell you what they're doing.

Some of the tracking methods almost sound like detective work. And because they're like a good detective at work, you probably wouldn't even notice that they're following you. For instance, a few new services springing up collect data individually (and independently) from PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets/iPads. Then they sift through it all and use your user location, IP address, browsing patterns—even what you're reading—to create a well-rounded and pretty accurate "profile" of you or your household. They sell those profiles to companies looking for good sales leads, such as automotive dealers.

It's good for business.

Advertisers seem to like the new shape of tracking technologies, mostly because they're not as "intrusive" as cookies of the past, which were simply dropped right into your computer. But that also means they're being a little sneakier by not letting you know about it.

Is that bad? Some people who don't like all the behind-the-scenes hidden technology involved think it is. Others, who reap the rewards, don't think so. Until something goes very wrong, or until these new data-tracking systems get more attention, most of us won't even know what's going on.