What are web trackers?
Online trackers are tracking pixels, cookies, or scripts websites use to gather information about their visitors. Some website owners might sell the data they’ve collected to advertisers, marketers, government agencies, and private companies for profit. Here are the two most common reasons for tracking:
- Advertising. Websites use ad tracking to offer personalized ads for goods and services to encourage you to purchase them or spend more. Ad trackers also enable websites to show targeted advertising or remind you to buy something you looked up elsewhere.
- Analytics. Website admins use trackers to monitor how you interact with their website. Knowing this information helps them tailor the website to your needs, like positioning buttons on pages with more traffic, changing the layout, or removing information users don’t seem interested in.
Trackers may collect information on browsing habits (e.g., websites you visit, what you click on), your IP address, and even personal data (like your email address).
NordVPN research: How did it work?
NordVPN researchers reviewed the top 100 sites in 25 countries. The top websites were taken from SimilarWeb, a web analytics company specializing in web performance and traffic.
Researchers visited these sites using three tracker blockers: Brave, Privacy Badger, and uBlock Origin. They didn’t log in to those sites but accepted tracking cookies where applicable.
They compared the highest number of trackers detected across the countries to determine how prevalent tracking was in each country.
What did the research show?
The study revealed that Hong Kong has the highest number of trackers per website. On average, Hong Kong websites have 45.4 trackers for collecting user information.
Singapore has the second-highest number of trackers per website – 33.5. The U.S. came in third, with 23 trackers per website on average. The high number of trackers indicates a need for a culture shift in these countries – and more legal protection of digital user privacy.
In contrast, Northern and Central European websites had very few trackers, showing that digital privacy is respected more than in the previously mentioned countries.
Austrian websites had the lowest number of trackers, with only 11.4 trackers per website.
Websites based in Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark also have comparatively few trackers, with 11.7 on average. These countries were followed by Norway (12.3) and Finland (12.6).
While data protection laws play an important role, the study suggests that online tracking practices are also impacted by culture, not just the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Even though it applies in these countries, websites in the UK (18.6), France (17.6), and Spain (18.2) had a high number of trackers.
How did tracking vary across different types of sites?
The study found that social media websites track users the most, with an average of 28 trackers per site. However, this high average appears to be skewed by the prevalence of tracking in Hong Kong and Singapore, where social media sites have 169 and 143 trackers on average, respectively. In many other countries, social media sites have as few as 11 trackers per website, with Canada having only an average of seven trackers on social media sites.
News, streaming, and shopping sites also have many trackers – 21, 20, and 19, respectively. These numbers remain consistently high across countries, with the UK having the highest number of trackers on news sites (33).
Education and government platforms scored well, with only seven trackers on education sites andfive on government websites on average.
The study showed that health websites have 15 trackers on average. However, user tracking on these websites varies depending on whether they’re public or private.
Adult websites track users the least, with just four trackers per website on average.
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What are the dangers of being tracked online?
Maintaining data privacy is important. User information is a commodity, with everyone from large companies to cybercriminals wanting to get their hands on your data. Protecting your privacy is as important as staying safe online.
While many trackers are used for advertising and improving user experience, they are also handy for those who want to spy on you.
Keeping track of your browsing history and web searches means very little privacy for you. Internet service providers (ISPs), marketing agencies, social media companies, and governments can access your online actions and desires – which feels like a violation of privacy, even though it doesn’t pose any immediate security risk.
However, your data can also become accessible to hackers. Mishandling of user information happens, with many companies experiencing major data breaches. Thousands of data leaks, hacks, and dark web data dumps occur yearly, exposing millions of user records.
Block trackers with Threat Protection
Knowing that your every online move is tracked can be unsettling. The good news is that you can stop that from happening – and it’s easier than you might think.
Threat Protection is free with every NordVPN subscription – and it allows you to go online without leaving a trace, protecting your privacy and improving your digital security.
Third-party trackers won’t be able to gather information about your browsing habits. You will also no longer see targeted ads as you visit your favorite sites, letting you enjoy a more seamless online experience.