Internet advertisers reach millions of consumers through practices that involve real time tracking of users’ online activities. The tracking is conducted by third party ad services engaged by the Web sites to facilitate marketing campaigns and service analytics. At the same time, the applications that facilitate interaction with services, such as Internet browsers, reveal little or no information to the user about the information flow between the devices and services. That leaves the consumers with no insight and no understanding of what data is collected and how it is used. In the broader context of privacy and cyber-security, it is important to consider methods and computing designs that empower users to make well informed decisions and take actions that keep themselves and others safe.
We present research projects that investigated several aspects: (1) characterizing the tracking ecosystem and the value exchange within it, (2) understanding the users’ attitudes, behaviour, and awareness of tracking practices, and (3) designing applications and systems to increase the transparency of the data and value exchange between the user and services. We discuss the findings of three studies. They motivate us to consider alternatives to the privacy invading online practices and urge deeper questions about the design and comprehensibility of computing systems.