Today it has been revealed that a Virginia-based firm, AddThis, has developed secret website technology that covertly tracks visitors without their knowledge. The technology is being put to use by the Welsh Government, the National Assembly and a range of councils including Anglesey Council, Blaenau Gwent Council and Conwy Council.
The official line is that the invasive software is ‘merely’ responsible for search-based targeted ads.
A spokesman for the Welsh Local Government Association said:
“The use of such tools is based on nothing more than the need to ensure that council websites keep pace with people’s viewing habits, and that they offer the right information in the right way.
“This is a positive way of ensuring that visitors get what they want.”
However Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch warned:
“Too often websites collect far more data than the organisation requires or could ever hope to use. Public sector websites need to ensure that they are meeting the gold standard in users’ privacy.”
Privacy International spokesman Mike Rispolisi added:
“Companies like AddThis have developed technology called canvas fingerprinting. Canvas fingerprinting is much more quiet. It’s really complex and a step beyond.”
“That allows for companies to build up these complex profiles about you.”
On the legality of informing visitors that they are being monitored in this way, Mr Rispolisi noted:
“There is no obligation on a site to tell visitors these trackers are being used. It is problematic in general. But when there are governments involved, it is more of a problem because they are the ones charged with protecting us from these things.”
The software has also caught the attention of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “What governments do not necessarily realise is that when they build these widgets into sites it is often giving information to a third party provider,” said Dave Maass.