What a Tangled Web We Weave: Understanding the Interconnectedness of the Third Party Cookie Ecosystem


When users browse to a so-called First Party website, other third parties are able to place cookies on the users’ browsers. Although this practice can enable some important use cases, in practice, these third party cookies also allow trackers to identify that a user has visited two or more first parties which both share the second party. This simple feature been used to bootstrap an extensive tracking ecosystem that can severely compromise user privacy. In this paper, we develop a metric called tangle factor that measures how a set of first party websites may be interconnected or tangled with each other based on the common third parties used. Our insight is that the interconnectedness can be calculated as the chromatic number of a graph where the first party sites are the nodes, and edges are induced based on shared third parties. We use this technique to measure the interconnectedness of the browsing patterns of over 100 users in 25 different countries, through a Chrome browser plugin which we have deployed. The users of our plugin consist of a small carefully selected set of 15 test users in UK and China, and 1000+ in-the-wild users, of whom 124 have shared data with us. We show that different countries have different levels of interconnectedness, for example China has a lower tangle factor than the UK. We also show that when visiting the same sets of websites from China, the tangle factor is smaller, due to blocking of major operators like Google and Facebook. We show that selectively removing the largest trackers is a very effective way of decreasing the interconnectedness of third party websites. We then consider blocking practices employed by privacy-conscious users (such as ad blockers) as well as those enabled by default by Chrome and Firefox, and compare their effectiveness using the tangle factor metric we have defined. Our results help quantify for the first time the extent to which one ad blocker is more effective than others, and how Firefox defaults also greatly help decrease third party tracking compared to Chrome.

Proceedings of the 12th ACM Conference on Web Science
Xuehui (Rachel) Hu
Xuehui (Rachel) Hu
PhD Student, working on third party trackers and GDPR