File Under: privacy, Web Basics

Twitter Improves Privacy Options, Now Supports ‘Do Not Track’

Twitter has jumped on the “Do Not Track” privacy bandwagon.

The company recently confirmed that it supports the Do Not Track header, a user privacy tool originally created by Mozilla that is in the process of becoming a web standard. That means if you visit Twitter in any web browser that supports the Do Not Track header, you can opt out of the cookies Twitter uses to gather personal information, as well as any cookies set by third-party advertisers.

Behavioral tracking, as such practices are often called, is a common on the web. Advertisers use cookies to track your clicks, watching which sites you visit, what you buy and even, in the case of mobile browsers, where you go. Often the sites tracking you are not just the sites you’ve actually visited, but third-party sites running ads on those pages.

And it’s not just advertisers tracking your movements, social networks like Facebook and Twitter also follow you around the web. You may not realize it, but Twitter has been tracking your every move for some time. The company doesn’t make a secret of it either. In a blog post announcing Twitter’s new “tailored suggestions system” Twitters Othman Laraki writes, “we receive visit information when sites have integrated Twitter buttons or widgets.”

To be clear, not only is Twitter able to set cookies any time you visit its own domain, whenever you visit a website (like this one) with a “Tweet This” or similar button Twitter can see you there as well. This practice is hardly unique to Twitter; Facebook, Google+ and others are doing the same thing.

Most of the time the information gathered is used to create a better experience for users. In the case of Twitter’s new “tailored suggestions” feature the information is used to build a profile of what you like and then Twitter makes suggestions based on that profile. You can read about exactly what Twitter does with your info and how long it keeps it in the company’s privacy policy.

The problem with such tracking is that it’s necessary for features we want, like smart, targeted suggestions — new users to follow, music you’ll likely enjoy, books you might want to read and so on — but it can also be used for decidedly less friendly purposes. As awareness of the downsides to such tracking become more well known a growing number of people are opting out of the tracking. The Mozilla Privacy blog reports that “current adoption rates of Do Not Track are 8.6 percent for desktop users of Firefox and 19 percent for Firefox Mobile users.”

To take advantage of Twitter’s new Do Not Track feature you’ll need to be using a web browser that supports the header. Currently that means Firefox, Opera 12+, Internet Explorer 9+ or Safari 5.1+. Chrome has pledged to add support for Do Not Track, but doesn’t just yet. For more information on protecting your online privacy, including tools like Ghostery, which go even further, blocking all tracking cookies, see our earlier post, Secure Your Browser: Add-Ons to Stop Web Tracking.