Researchers at the German programs Panorama and Zapp have concluded after months of research that a number of browser add-ons are selling their users’ internet history to third parties. They only mention the ‘Web of Trust’ add-on explicitly.
The German NDR writes that the researchers could view the data from Web of Trust, or WOT, by buying it from an intermediary. To achieve this, they had set up a fake company dealing with ‘big data’. The data, including URLs visited, a user ID and location and time data, is collected by the browser extension and sent to a central server outside of Germany. From there, the data goes to intermediaries, who resell it. On its site, the extension warns that data is shared with third parties, but claims that this is done anonymously.
The researchers were able to identify fifty people in samples, for example because a name appeared in an e-mail address or on the basis of parts of URLs. In total, the data covers about ten billion URLs, containing the surfing history of millions of Germans during one month. For example, it was possible to retrieve scanned passports and financial information of a person from Hamburg via ‘links to an online storage service’. Criminals can use this data to commit identity theft, the researchers said.
They add that after the creation of their bogus company, they received many offers from intermediaries who offered large amounts of data. Speaking to the German site Golem, one of the researchers explains that they were able to obtain the data as a “taste” from a company and that in certain cases they had “live access” to the data. Many of these companies and intermediaries are said to be from Israel or have addresses in places like the Virgin Islands and Panama.
A German privacy officer, Johannes Caspar, is critical of the resale of the data. Normally, users would first have to consent to such uses of their personal data. Moreover, such extensive processing of data would be unlawful. The company behind the Web of Trust extension did not respond to the researchers’ questions. The extension aims to make internet usage safer by showing users ratings of sites by other users. The extension claims to have been downloaded about eighty million times.