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Thousands of top websites collect your data in real-time as you type

Websites are harvesting our data even before we “submit” any information.

person typing on macbook
Image: Unsplash

Most internet users, myself included, have certain expectations about submitting information to websites. We think that anything we type out can be deleted before we “submit” the data and no one will see it. As it turns out, that’s not always the case.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland looked at the tracking practices of the top 100,000 websites.

And the paper found that thousands of websites include trackers that gather email addresses without consent. Even worse, these trackers are able to see what you type even if you don’t submit anything.

READ MORE: Websites share your data with advertisers 100s of times per day

The study found that 1,844 websites include these kinds of trackers for European users. And in the US it’s much worse, with 2,950 websites gathering up users’ emails without consent.

email address website tracker list
Image: Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland

Interestingly, the researchers found a couple of different methods that sites use to gather this unsolicited data. Some sites log every keystroke that you make when you’re on the site.

Others will grab the information from a field in a submission form once the user clicks out of it. “Like you click the password field and they collect the email, or you just click anywhere and they collect all the information immediately,” said Asuman Senol, one of the study’s co-authors.

Meta and TikTok collect data using a similar tactic

meta and facebook logo on grey background
Image: Unsplash

The group of researchers also made a grim discovery about Meta and TikTok after originally publishing their paper. The company’s marketing trackers, Meta Pixel and TikTok Pixel, are harvesting data in a similar fashion to the trackers above.

The trackers are deployed across thousands of websites. And the “Automatic Advanced Matching” option supposedly allows TikTok and Meta to gather user data from websites when a user submits their information.

However, like the trackers mentioned above, the companies are actually harvesting that data before a user ever clicks a “Submit” button. All it takes is clicking out of a window or form and the website sucks up any information you’ve shared.

Meta uses this tactic much more frequently than TikTok, with more than 8,000 sites in the US leaking data to Meta and 7,300 sites gathering European users’ information. TikTok Pixel was only found on 154 sites for US users and 147 for users in Europe.

The researchers notified Meta of this practice in March. The company assigned an engineer to the case, but the researchers haven’t heard anything back. They notified TikTok in April but have yet to get a response from the company.

This revelation greatly changes how we should view entering personal information on websites. Websites aren’t only gathering and sharing our information after we click some sort of “submit” button.

Everything we type into a website is subject to collection, so it’s time to start being more careful about what we share with the websites we visit.

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