There is a hue and cry being raised across the web about Yahoo’s use of web beacons, which some liken to “super cookies”, and which allow the tracker to track a user’s movements not only within their own website, but even when the user has moved on to other, unaffiliated websites.
The use of web beacons is nothing new, but what is new is the growing awareness of their use, along with a generally increasing concern on the part of the web-surfing public about how their personal information can be used, compromised, and misused.
A case in point is the following message that has recently been circulating around the Internet about Yahoo’s use of web beacons: “Yahoo tracks all of its users everywhere on the web and the way to opt-out is detailed below. If you have a Yahoo e-mail account or belong to one of Yahoo’s many Yahoo groups, this probably applies to you. Yahoo has probably been tracking everything you do online. Follow the instructions precisely to opt out of this. Notice the important part at the very end.” It then goes on to say that “Yahoo is now using something called ‘Web Beacons’ to track Yahoo Group users around the net and see what you’re doing and where you are going similar to cookies. Yahoo is recording every website and every group you visit.”
Now, it may be a bit alarmist to say that Yahoo tracks “all of its users everywhere on the web,” or that “Yahoo is recording every website and every group you visit,” but it is undeniable that they are using web beacons, and using them to track people’s movements both on and off Yahoo’s own websites. Of course, they aren’t the first company to do it, and they won’t be the last, but they are the one which is presently in the spotlight.
Tripping through Yahoo’s privacy statement, available at http://privacy.yahoo.com/privacy/us/ brings us to the following information, in a section entitled “Cookies”: “Yahoo! uses web beacons to access Yahoo! cookies inside and outside our network of web sites and in connection with Yahoo! products and services.”
The term “web beacons” is linked to this information:
Web pages may contain an electronic file called a web beacon, that allows a web site to count users who have visited that page or to access certain cookies. Yahoo! uses web beacons in the following ways:
Within the Yahoo! Network
Yahoo! uses web beacons within the Yahoo! network of web sites in order to count users and to recognize users by accessing Yahoo! cookies.
Being able to access Yahoo! cookies allows us to personalize your experience when you visit Yahoo! web sites that are located both on and off of the yahoo.com domain. For example, Yahoo! GeoCities pages are mostly located on the geocities.com domain.
Ok, so far so good. Most people who use a service like Yahoo as their web portal want that service to remember their preferences, and greet them with the same experience every time they sign on. However, it is what follows that has people up in arms:
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Outside the Yahoo! Network
Yahoo! uses web beacons to conduct research on behalf of certain partners on their web sites and also for auditing purposes.
Information recorded through these web beacons is used to report aggregate information about Yahoo! users to our partners. This aggregate information may include demographic and usage information. No personally identifiable information about you is shared with partners from this research.
When conducting research Yahoo!’s practice is to require our partners to disclose the presence of these web beacons on their pages in their privacy policies and state what choices are available to users regarding the collection and use of this information. You may choose to opt-out of Yahoo! using this information for this research. Please click here to opt-out.
Note: This opt-out applies to a specific browser rather than a specific user. Therefore you will have to opt-out separately from each computer or browser that you use.
Yahoo!’s practice is to include web beacons in HTML-formatted email messages (messages that include graphics) that Yahoo!, or its agents, sends in order to determine which email messages were opened and to note whether a message was acted upon.
In general, any file served as part of a web page, including an ad banner, can act as a web beacon. Yahoo! may also include web beacons from other companies within pages served by Yahoo! so that Yahoo!’s advertisers may receive auditing, research and reporting.
Now, there are several things to note here:
1. To the best of Aunty’s knowledge, you only need to worry about this if you actually are registered with Yahoo. In other words, if you log in to Yahoo, if you have a Yahoo user i.d., then read on. If you don’t actually log in to Yahoo, ever, for anything, than you probably don’t need to worry about this. At very least, even if they are tracking what you do, they don’t know who you are.
1. The URL to opt out of the Yahoo web beacons is http://pclick.yahoo.com/p?optout
3. When you opt out, you are only opting out for that computer, using that web browser. If you log in to Yahoo with another computer, or even with the same computer but a different browser, you have to opt out again.
Don’t like it? That’s one of the prices you pay for free Internet services – although of course there is nothing to stop a service which you pay from doing the exact same thing.
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