Clash of the Trackers: Measuring the Evolution of the Online Tracking Ecosystem

  • Contributors: Konstantinos Solomos; Panagiotis Ilia; Sotiris Ioannidis; Nicolas Kourtellis
  • Year: 2020
  • Venue: TMA CONFERENCE 2020
  • Abstract:

    Websites are constantly adapting the methods used, and intensity with which they track online visitors. However, the wide-range enforcement of GDPR since one year ago (May 2018) forced websites serving EU-based online visitors to eliminate or at least reduce such tracking activity, given they receive proper user consent. Therefore, it is important to record and analyze the evolution of this tracking activity and assess the overall “privacy health” of the Web ecosystem and if it is better after GDPR enforcement. This work makes a significant step towards this direction. In this paper, we analyze the online ecosystem of 3rd-parties embedded in top websites which amass the majority of online tracking through 6 time snapshots taken every few months apart, in the duration of the last 2 years. We perform this analysis in three ways: 1) by looking into the network activity that 3rd-parties impose on each publisher hosting them, 2) by constructing a bipartite graph of “publisher-to-tracker”, connecting 3rd parties with their publishers, 3) by constructing a “tracker-to-tracker” graph connecting 3rd-parties who are commonly found in publishers. We record significant changes through time in number of trackers, traffic induced in publishers (incoming vs. outgoing), embeddedness of trackers in publishers, popularity and mixture of trackers across publishers. We also report how such measures compare with the ranking of publishers based on Alexa. On the last level of our analysis, we dig deeper and look into the connectivity of trackers with each other and how this relates to potential cookie synchronization activity.

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