A Comparative Measurement Study of Web Tracking on Mobile and Desktop Environments

Authors: Zhiju Yang (Colorado School of Mines), Chuan Yue (Colorado School of Mines)

Volume: 2020
Issue: 2
Pages: 24–44
DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/popets-2020-0016

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Abstract: Web measurement is a powerful approach to studying various tracking practices that may compromise the privacy of millions of users. Researchers have built several measurement frameworks and performed a few studies to measure web tracking on the desktop environment. However, little is known about web tracking on the mobile environment, and no tool is readily available for performing a comparative measurement study on mobile and desktop environments. In this work, we built a framework called WTPatrol that allows us and other researchers to perform web tracking measurement on both mobile and desktop environments. Using WTPatrol, we performed the first comparative measurement study of web tracking on 23,310 websites that have both mobile version and desktop version webpages. We conducted an in-depth comparison of the web tracking practices of those websites between mobile and desktop environments from two perspectives: web tracking based on JavaScript APIs and web tracking based on HTTP cookies. Overall, we found that mobile web tracking has its unique characteristics especially due to mobile-specific trackers, and it has become increasingly as prevalent as desktop web tracking. However, the potential impact of mobile web tracking is more severe than that of desktop web tracking because a user may use a mobile device frequently in different places and be continuously tracked. We further gave some suggestions to web users, developers, and researchers to defend against web tracking.

Keywords: Web tracking, measurement, user privacy, mobile, JavaScript API

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