Larry BraunerWebsite widgets are commonplace in the world of social media. They tend to make interacting, marketing and web site tracking easier and more fun. Many types of website widgets are currently used on this blog.

However, don’t you ever question how safe website widgets really are? The use of website widgets and banner ads raises online safety and privacy issues for you and your website visitors that are worthy of consideration.

Marketing Experiment Gone Wrong

Marketing Experiment Gone WrongI was experimenting with my website tracking software. I wanted to determine whether it would work on websites not belonging to me. I installed the required tracking code in a blog post on a Ning site and on my Ryze profile.

I very quickly uncovered a major obstacle. The JavaScript, a key element in the tracking code, had been stripped off by each of the social networking sites. All that remained was a link to a very tiny and invisible image hosted by my tracking service.

I decided to continue the test in order to see the outcome. I invited friends to visit the test pages and inspected the resulting traffic data. I saw the IP address, ISP, location, operating system and web browser for each person who had visited the test pages — and all it took was embedding an invisible one pixel by one pixel image on those pages.

Privacy and Security Implications

When you install a banner ad on your blog or other website, and that banner ad is hosted on the advertiser’s server, not yours, you give that advertiser identical information about your visitors as I was able to obtain about mine; your visitors don’t even need to click on the banner ad to make that happen.

Once an advertiser obtains an IP address, they may obtain more sensitive information as well. Some offline merchants sell data about their customers. Why not assume that some online merchants and social networking sites do the same?

They have some amount of personal information matched to an IP address, and may decide to monetize that private data. They might even state that in their privacy policy.

When you install a widget or ad on your site that contains script, the effects are more far reaching. The company that provided you with the widget code can obtain information about the source and actions of each visitor. Scripts can even be malicious, as in the case of poisoned banners. :-(

Your Due Diligence Can Help

You are responsible as a blogger or web site owner to protect the privacy of your visitors as best you can. Use web widgets from reputable sources and banner ads, too. If practical, host the image on your own server, as I myself generally do.

Hopefully, data that reputable third parties obtain from you and your visitors will be used for reasonable purposes, and their widget code will perform as specified. You need to take care that all third party widget code you embed in your site is from a reputable source.

Your turn for questions or comments. ;-)

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6 Responses to “Website Widgets and Ads Raise Security and Privacy Issues”

  1. Morgan Mandel on February 12th, 2010 12:51 am

    I’m coming to understand there’s not much privacy on the web. It’s buyer beware. Be careful what you say and do, because it will all come back to haunt you if you’re not.

    Trackers can tell what I’m doing, and I’ve got trackers on my own blog that count how many people come there and where they’re coming from. It’s very commonplace nowadays.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. David Alexander on February 12th, 2010 12:01 pm

    Good article, Larry. But, I think a “Marketing Experiment Gone Wrong” is a fitting title, as an example, for those large corporations that try to jump into social media and create a firestorm of negative response due to carelessness or lack of understanding. Your experiment seems to have succeeded: it led to another informative article.

    David

  3. Larry Brauner on February 12th, 2010 1:21 pm

    Thank you David. “Marketing Experiment Gone Wrong” was tongue in cheek sensationalism intended to keep the interest of readers despite the somewhat technical nature of the article.

  4. Chronic Chick Talk on February 22nd, 2010 12:00 am

    I can totally agree with you as I recently had a bug attack my header of my blog that was redirecting my site. I have since installed the firewall plug-in and set my permissions accordingly. Live and Learn. It was a nightmare to say the least. So do you host BlogCatalog, MyBlogLog and the Facebook icons?

    Thanks for the information :)

  5. Larry Brauner on February 22nd, 2010 12:08 am

    I don’t host any widgets, but I do host some of my banner ads.

  6. California Summer Camps on June 1st, 2011 6:44 am

    The world wide web has become a rather unsafe place when it come to privacy it seems. More and more violations of one’s privacy is taking place on a daily basis. It has become, not just a habit of hacking, but also a hobby for some.

    It is indeed very important that we make sure that we make our websites and blogs as secure for our visitors as possible. It almost is our duty to do so.

    Jimmy Sorensen
    Webmaster, iDTech Summer Camps

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