Reddit Is Tracking Its Users Browsing Activity, Even When They’re Logged Out [Updated]

Reddit Is Tracking Its Users Off-Site Activity, Even When They’re Logged Out
Reddit Is Tracking Its Users Off-Site Activity, Even When They’re Logged Out Redditblog.com

Update 6:20 p.m. -- Reddit's press office replied to iDigitalTimes' request for a comment after this story was published. Its response, attributed to Justin Bassett, a data scientist at Reddit and the Reddit administrator who posted the changelog, is shown below: 

"Reddit does not track users outside of reddit.com and our native iPhone and Android apps. The current A/B test does not rely on any off-site data and does not increase our tracking in any way. Instead, it presents users with a tailored front page based on their on-site (reddit.com) usage alone.

When a logged out user on Reddit browses into different communities and engages with a specific subreddit (e.g. viewing a comments page on a link), that subreddit is added to their first-party cookies. Reddit's first-party cookies are not made available to any non-Reddit domains (this can be verified by inspecting the cookies; they are only signed by and available to www.reddit.com).

Although this A/B test was recently implemented, the subreddit cookie is not a new addition. It has been part of Reddit for several years, and is currently used site-wide to populate the suggested posts/sponsored headline feature.

This test only affects 1% of logged out users on the desktop site."

Update 6:56 p.m. -- According Reddit, Test No. 5 was edited into the changelog June 1, while Test No. 6 and 7 were edited in June 2. The changelog was published May 18.

Reddit is currently conducting tests to track users “based on their browsing habits” when the users are logged out to tailor the default front page, according to an official Reddit changelog posted late May. While this is a scaled test affecting only a small percentage of users at the moment, it seems Reddit is taking a hint from other online communities, such as Facebook or Twitter. Collecting user information translates into ad strategy, and lurkers are a large part of the Reddit user base.

This move, necessary to provide the same ad-targeting ability a platform like Facebook Ads offers, clashes with the Reddit ethos. Creating a new account on Reddit was designed in spirit to be as simple as possible, without email verification or personal details. All you needed to be a part of Reddit -- and all Reddit cared about -- was your username handle and a password.

Now Reddit is seemingly making moves like it wants to start knowing more, in the same way that Twitter and Facebook build their users browsing habit profiles. This system would allow Reddit to know if you enjoy reading celebrity news tabloids, or if you're reading more weight loss articles. This type of knowledge has value when presenting a user base to advertisers.

Reddit ostensibly edited the changelog and added three items to the active test list after the changelog had been live for a decent period of time, without directly remarking on the late edits in the post. One of those added tests was tracking logged out users activity. Voat.co user MaunaLoona, despite his very-Voat taste in internet communities, noticed the changes and posted screenshots of the archived, original changelog compared to the edited changelog on the Voat board, /v/MeanwhileOnReddit.

Now, that archive was taken only 20 minutes after the initial posting of the changelog. The first comment talking about one of the ninja additions (No. 5, 6, 7) is dated one day after the changelog, with test No. 5. The first comment that mentions tracking logged out users, or test No. 6, was posted five days after the changelog was first published.

Despite the lack of scandal, these tests could still be the first step toward some big-time changes for the Reddit user base and their privacy on the "the front page of the internet." Reddit is framing this test as a way to serve better content to its users, but it's the same argument Twitter and Facebook uses. If you're not paying for the product, you are the product.

If you want to stop websites from tracking you across the internet like this, there’s a Firefox and Chrome extension from the EFF called Privacy Badger that blocks this. Another alternative is Ghostery.

In related news, Reddit seems to be experimenting with rewriting outgoing urls with their own affiliate codes, via a service called VigLink. The site also recently shut down an experiment regarding tracking outbound link clicks by users after privacy complaints.

Editor's Note: The original version of this story has been updated after Reddit's response to our request for comment.

 

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