Shocking Study Reveals Most Government Websites Use Tracking Cookies Without Consent

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We recently wrote about TikTok’s extensive collection of user data and an FCC commissioner’s letter asking Apple and Google to ban the app from their app stores for violating their privacy policies. While TikTok goes to great lengths to collect user data, there’s little consolation in the fact that users can avoid the app’s aggressive data-gathering practices by not installing it.

However, the same cannot be said for many websites, where simply loading a web page can expose visitors to various trackers that install cookies in their web browsers. Unlike an app store, where users can choose which apps to install, many websites automatically install third-party tracking cookies without users’ knowledge or consent. Fortunately, there are various ways to block or erase third-party cookies, but most users are unaware of these methods or even aware of the presence of tracking cookies in the first place.

Unfortunately, governments contribute to the prevalence of third-party trackers on the Internet. A new study published by the IMDEA Networks Institute shows how common it is for government websites to install third-party cookies in visitors’ web browsers. The study makes a distinction between third-party cookies (TP) and third-party tracking cookies (TPT), as not all third-party cookies are “defined by known domains to track users for data collection purposes.

Percentage of government websites with third-party cookies (TP) and third-party tracking cookies (TPT) by country
The chart above shows the percentage of government websites for each country that set at least one third-party cookie, as well as the percentage of those cookies associated with domains known to track users. Russia tops the list with over 90% of its government websites installing third-party cookies in visitors’ web browsers. Meanwhile, nearly 60% of US government websites set at least one third-party cookie. Germany is at the bottom of the list with just under 30% of government websites offering third-party cookies.

Most third-party cookies set by government websites are known tracking cookies, except in the case of Germany, where less than 10% of third-party cookies are associated with domains known to track users. The researchers also found that, depending on the country, 20-60% of third-party cookies installed by government websites remain in visitors’ browsers without expiring for a year or more. It’s a long time for a tracker installed without your knowledge or consent to remain active.

Beyond specific tracking cookies, the researchers measured the number of trackers of all kinds present on government websites. The Russian gov.ru has the most trackers of any government website analyzed by researchers, with 31 trackers in total. However, Brazil and Canada are not far behind, with 25 trackers present across both. investexportbrasil.gov.br and nac-cna.ca. The US government website with the most trackers is hhs.govwhich has 13.

The researchers point out that the two third-party tracking cookies are automatically installed in visitors’ web browsers without their consent. However, the researchers assume that web developers and administrators are likely including third-party content without intending to add trackers to their websites. A lot of websites now rely on third-party resources and include social content that comes with built-in trackers.

The researchers conclude the study with the following closing statements:Our work shows how difficult it is to apply data protection laws in practice, and we hope it can help weed out government websites and similar web pages that serve public services from followed. With our study, we also aim to raise awareness of potential tracking when visiting official websites, and advocate for the need for new tools and systems for continuous measurement and transparent reporting to improve the privacy of online public services. .

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