Ping Tracking, Great for Google, Better for User Experience, Bad for Privacy

Ping tracking is an unexpected but not uncommon use of the ping feature to track user’s online jumps. The ping feature in itself specifies a list of URLs that will be notified once the user clicks on the hyperlink. A standard tool in itself, one of the secondary uses it has involves the storage of information regarding the origin and destination of the request, which allows sites to record hyperlink click tracking. This practice may soon become the industry standard to record this kind of information.

Ping tracking acts as a way to track hyperlink clicks from one site to another, by storing a cookie containing relevant information about the Ping-From and Ping-To parameters, basically tracking origin and destination. At the same time, ping isn’t obliged to return the user to their original site after it has been delivered, which makes it ideal as a seamless to both “redirect” users towards a site and storing the from-and-to information about that redirection in one straightforward process. Notably, ping tracking isn’t limited to only ping back towards the original domain only, it can send that information anywhere the site code orders it to.

There’s an ongoing debate about privacy surrounding hyperlink click tracking. It has been argued that domains shouldn’t have any interest in storing information regarding which sites users visits from their hyperlinks, but Google has a different point of view about this. Their argument lies in the fact that their search engine can only be optimized if they know which links their users are visiting, for how long and/or do they bounce immediately, so they consider this information as crucial for the continuous development and optimization of their trillion dollar software.

Google used to store this information using a method known as HTTP redirect, in which clicking a hyperlink wouldn’t automatically link to an out page but instead they would redirect back to Google before linking the user to their intended site, creating and storing a cookie in the process. This two-step method of hyperlink storage has usually been the standard or common practice, but this same process can be streamlined via ping tracking, which both “redirects” and stores the link click in just one step.

Up until their last version Chrome 73, Google Chrome was the only browser in which Google used Ping tracking instead of HTTP redirect as a way to track destinations, since as a company they know for a fact that their native browser allows for ping tracking to work constantly even if it can be disabled, a certainty they don’t have with other browsers. Safari, Opera and Edge could work like Chrome in that it was enabled by default and could be disabled while Firefox and Brave don’t have it enabled by default. But Chrome 74, the newest update, doesn’t allow the user to disable ping tracking.

This push from Google to use ping tracking as the industry standard among browsers will probably be followed soon by other browsers. Since Google is storing hyperlink clicks from its users anyway, either via ping tracking or HTTP redirect, it’s safe to assume other browsers will soon follow in making ping tracking the standard method.

Ping tracking has benefits for both sites and users in that it makes the process of hyperlink click tracking faster. This parallel process allows sites to load faster and would reduce malicious redirection links hidden in hyperlinks, which from a user standpoint are clear benefits. But at the same time, it would cement the rather controversial issue of hyperlink click tracking as an established feature of web browsing.

Security expert Steve Gibson has described it as “Cleaner but Creepier”, in that it both streamlines hyperlink tracking but at the same time makes it unavoidable. At the same time he has also mentioned that there are currently no efficient methods to stop hyperlink click tracking, so in the end users will end up accepting ping tracking as the most efficient way to allow this practice to continue.

UPDATE: It has been recently announced that Mozilla Firefox will be in fact changing its setting on ping tracking to be enabled by default in its next version. Citing performance improvement as the main reason for this decision, Mozilla declared that disabling ping tracking would not be a meaningful improvement on user privacy since websites already have many alternatives for hyperlink auditing.

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