Some Technical Clarifications About Do Not Track
When I last wrote here about Do Not Track in August, there were just a few rumblings about the possibility of a Do Not Track mechanism for online privacy. Fast forward four months, and Do Not Track has shot to the top of the privacy agenda among regulators in Washington. The FTC staff privacy report released in December endorsed the idea, and Congress was quick to hold a hearing on the issue earlier this month. Now, odds are quite good that some kind of Do Not Track legislation will be introduced early in this new congressional session.
While there isn’t yet a concrete proposal for Do Not Track on the table, much has already been written both in support of and against the idea in general, and it’s terrific to see the issue debated so widely. As I’ve been following along, I’ve noticed some technical confusion on a few points related to Do Not Track, and I’d like to address three of them here.
1. Do Not Track will most likely be based on an HTTP header.
I’ve read some people still suggesting that Do Not Track will be some form of a government-operated list or registry—perhaps of consumer names, device identifiers, tracking domains, or something else. This type of solution has been suggested before in an earlier conception of Do Not Track, and given its rhetorical likeness to the Do Not Call Registry, it’s a natural connection to make. But as I discussed in my earlier post—the details of which I won’t rehash here—a list mechanism is a relatively clumsy solution to this problem for a number of reasons.
A more elegant solution—and the one that many technologists seem to have coalesced around—is the use of a special HTTP header that simply tells the server whether the user is opting out of tracking for that Web request, i.e. the header can be set to either “on” or “off” for each request. If the header is “on,” the server would be responsible for honoring the user’s choice to not be tracked. Users would be able to control this choice through the preferences panel of the browser or the mobile platform.
2. Do Not Track won’t require us to “re-engineer the Internet.”
It’s also been suggested that implementing Do Not Track in this way will require a substantial amount of additional work, possibly even rising to the level of “re-engineering the Internet.” This is decidedly false. The HTTP standard is an extensible one, and it “allows an open-ended set of… headers” to be defined for it. Indeed, custom HTTP headers are used in many Web applications today.
How much work will it take to implement Do Not Track using the header? Generally speaking, not too much. On the client-side, adding the ability to send the Do Not Track header is a relatively simple undertaking. For instance, it only took about 30 minutes of programming to add this functionality to a popular extension for the Firefox Web browser. Other plug-ins already exist. Implementing this functionality directly into the browser might take a little bit longer, but much of the work will be in designing a clear and easily understandable user interface for the option.
On the server-side, adding code to detect the header is also a reasonably easy task—it takes just a few extra lines of code in most popular Web frameworks. It could take more substantial work to program how the server behaves when the header is “on,” but this work is often already necessary even in the absence of Do Not Track. With industry self-regulation, compliant ad servers supposedly already handle the case where a user opts out of their behavioral advertising programs, the difference now being that the opt-out signal comes from a header rather than a cookie. (Of course, the FTC could require stricter standards for what opting-out means.)
Note also that contrary to some suggestions, the header mechanism doesn’t require consumers to identify who they are or otherwise authenticate to servers in order to gain tracking protection. Since the header is a simple on/off flag sent with every Web request, the server doesn’t need to maintain any persistent state about users or their devices’ opt-out preferences.
3. Microsoft’s new Tracking Protection feature isn’t the same as Do Not Track.
Last month, Microsoft announced that its next release of Internet Explorer will include a privacy feature called Tracking Protection. Mozilla is also reportedly considering a similar browser-based solution (although a later report makes it unclear whether they actually will). Browser vendors should be given credit for doing what they can from within their products to protect user privacy, but their efforts are distinct from the Do Not Track header proposal. Let me explain the major difference.
Browser-based features like Tracking Protection basically amount to blocking Web connections from known tracking domains that are compiled on a list. They don’t protect users from tracking by new domains (at least until they’re noticed and added to the tracking list) nor from “allowed” domains that are tracking users surreptitiously.
In contrast, the Do Not Track header compels servers to cooperate, to proactively refrain from any attempts to track the user. The header could be sent to all third-party domains, regardless of whether the domain is already known or whether it actually engages in tracking. With the header, users wouldn’t need to guess whether a domain should be blocked or not, and they wouldn’t have to risk either allowing tracking accidentally or blocking a useful feature.
Tracking Protection and other similar browser-based defenses like Adblock Plus and NoScript are reasonable, but incomplete, interim solutions. They should be viewed as complementary with Do Not Track. For entities under FTC jurisdiction, Do Not Track could put an effective end to the tracking arms race between those entities and browser-based defenses—a race that browsers (and thus consumers) are losing now and will be losing in the foreseeable future. For those entities outside FTC jurisdiction, blocking unwanted third parties is still a useful though leaky defense that maintains the status quo.
Information security experts like to preach “defense in depth” and it’s certainly vital in this case. Neither solution fully protects the user, so users really need both solutions to be available in order to gain more comprehensive protection. As such, the upcoming features in IE and Firefox should not be seen as a technical substitute for Do Not Track.
To reiterate: if the technology that implements Do Not Track ends up being an HTTP header, which I think it should be, it would be both technically feasible and relatively simple. It’s also distinct from recent browser announcements about privacy in that Do Not Track forces server cooperation, while browser-based defenses work alone to fend off tracking.
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