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  • Apple has launched a new feature in its Safari browser that allows users to see a list of cross-site trackers.
  • That makes it very easy to see who is tracking South Africans across the web. 
  • Not all tracking is bad for users, but some local websites seem a lot more interested in knowing where you go than others.
  • Here's what Apple's new tool says about local tracking.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Recently, Apple launched a new feature in its Safari browser that allows users to view cross-site trackers, code that allows websites you visit to continue collecting data about you as you move to other websites.

The new feature is a quick and convenient way to see just how much information gathering is taking place in the background as we innocently browse.

The technology, which Apple is calling Intelligent Tracking Prevention, is designed to give users more information about ther privacy online, with the ultimate aim of making the web a little safer to use.

According to Apple, several companies have developed technology to track user behaviour across multiple websites, primarily with the aim of selling products based on browsing history. It’s for this reason that advertisements for products or services can appear to follow us around the internet.

But tracking is also a necessary feature for the operation of many websites, and doing away with them entirely - or lumping all trackers into the same box - may hinder the user experience. Apple therefore says it is using its Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature “to limit tracking while still enabling websites to function normally”.

Apple says its technology “works by learning which domains are used to track a user and then immediately isolating and purging the tracking data that they attempt to store on the user’s device.”

This is turned on by default for all users of Apple web browsers - and it provides fascinating insight into a world many users had little idea even existed prior to this.

How to see how many trackers are deployed by a website:
  • Update to the latest version of Apple's Safari browser
  • Click the shield next to the address bar
  • The little "i" on the right offers insight into all tracking activity - or click the dropdown arrow to learn more about the trackers on that specific website.
A screenshot of the Absa website, with the Safari feature enabled to show how many cross-site trackers a website deployed.

The most common type of tracker found on local and international websites doesn’t belong to the nefarious underground - they exist mainly in things like social media "Like" and "Share" buttons, or comment fields, and they can even track users who don’t engage with these common online features.

Like websites around the world, many local businesses use such trackers to help improve their advertisement targeting. In many cases it may just be innocent advertisement tracking, or a necessary tool of operation - but in some cases, local websites make use of extensive cross-site tracking features that may make users uncomfortable.

The number of trackers deployed by local websites fluctuates, but here's a snapshot of how many trackers we observed in a single session this week, across major local sites: 

  • thesouthafrican.com: 10 trackers
  • ewn.co.za: 5 trackers
  • timeslive.co.za: 5 trackers
  • gumtree.co.za: 4 trackers
  • iol.co.za: 4 trackers
  • dstv.com: 4 trackers
  • mybroadband.co.za: 3 trackers
  • autotrader.co.za: 3 trackers
  • news24.com: 2 trackers
  • enca.com: 2 trackers

South Africa’s banking websites are also particularly fond of trackers:

  • Absa: 10 trackers
  • Nedbank: 9 trackers
  • Standard Bank: 7 trackers
  • Capitec: 3 trackers
  • FNB: 1 tracker

Online shops, perhaps understandably given their main business, also make use of trackers:

  • Loot: 6 trackers
  • Takealot: 4 trackers
  • OneDayOnly: 4 trackers
  • Zando: 2 trackers
  • Superbalist: 2 trackers

Many of the trackers used by local websites are created and maintained by some of the world’s leaders in targeted online advertising, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. 

New Relic, a California-based company which describes itself as “an observability platform built to help engineers create more perfect software”, is another popular choice - and unlike the social network trackers, they make use of an invisible tracking pixel in order to monetise your browsing.

Websites that venture into the double digits on tracking - such as Absa, and The South African - work in slightly murkier territory. In Absa’s collection of trackers are those created by all the main social networks, and several from Adobe, which may include the ability to identify users.

Better.fyi identified this fine print on the Adobe website that points to this:

“Some companies using Adobe services may send us information that allows them to identify you personally. Some companies may also buy additional information about you and then add that additional information to the information collected by Adobe's products on their websites. This additional information may include things like email addresses, account information, or Facebook profile information, including photos and usernames.”

These techniques - used to either monetise users or improve the user experience on a specific website - are not uncommon.

But while browsing local websites, Safari highlighted just how prevalent these invisible trackers are - in just an hour of our usage, 68% of websites contacted trackers without express permission, and Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention prevented 39 websites from creating an online user profile based on browsing habits.

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