Whitehouse.gov is among thousands of websites that have been tracking visitors' online behavior, usually without the visitors' knowledge, with an almost untraceable program, according to a new study by ProPublica.
It was researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium who actually discovered the White House has been using the hard-to-detect type of user tracking called ‘canvas fingerprinting.'
Unlike cookies, the more common data collection technique that uses text files installed on your computer, canvas fingerprinting uses a web browser to draw a unique image associated with a device and is almost impossible to track.
The White House has been using a firm named AddThis to provide social media sharing tools on its site, according to ProPublica. And, as it turns out, AddThis includes the canvas tracking coding with its tools. As a result, ProPublica found, 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites -- including WhiteHouse.gov -- contain the canvas fingerprinting computer code.
The tracking tool builds user profiles based on the websites a person visits. If you’re a frequenter of Facebook, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon. Canvas fingerprinting can track the articles a user reads and links they click on to better match them with advertisements.
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Richard Harris, chief executive of AddThis, told ProPublica that the company is not planning to use the White House data for ad targeting or personalization and has so far only used the information for internal research and development. A White House spokesperson told the National Journal that officials were not “using this technology to track Whitehouse.gov users.”
AddThis chose not to notify any of the more than 5,000 sites, including Whitehouse.gov, that it tested canvas fingerprinting on, according to ProPublica.
Interestingly many of the sites listed that have the canvas fingerprinting coding through AddThis are media outlets including New York Daily News, The Blaze and cbslocal.com.
You can view the full list here.