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Here's how your router collects data and handles your privacy

Wi-Fi router companies say they don't track the websites you visit, but all of them collect and share user data for marketing
 
by Ry Crist 

Part 3 - Is my router tracking the websites I visit?

Almost all of the web traffic in your home passes through your router, so maybe it's difficult to imagine that it isn't tracking the websites that you're visiting as you browse. Every major manufacturer I looked into discloses that it collects some form of user data for the purpose of marketing -- but almost none of the policies I read included any language that explicitly answered the question of whether or not a user should expect their web history to be logged or recorded.

The sole exception? Google.

"Importantly, the Google Wifi app, Wifi features of the Google Home app, and your Google Wifi and Nest Wifi devices do not track the websites you visit or collect the content of any traffic on your network," Google's support page for Nest Wifi privacy reads. "However, your Google Wifi and Nest Wifi devices do collect data such as Wi-Fi channel, signal strength, and device types that are relevant to optimize your Wi-Fi performance."

I asked each of the six other companies I looked into for this post whether or not they tracked the websites their users visit. Though none of them indicate as much in their privacy policies, representatives for five of them -- Eero, Asus, Netgear, TP-Link and CommScope (which makes and sells Arris Surfboard networking products) -- told me that their products do not track the sites that users visit on the web.

"Eero does not track and does not have the capability to track customer internet browsing activity," an Eero spokesperson shared.

"Asus routers do not track what the user is browsing nor do our routers include targeting or advertising cookies," an Asus spokesperson said.

"Netgear routers do not track any user web activity or browsing history except in cases where a user opts in to a service and only to provide information to the user," a Netgear spokesperson said, offering the examples of parental controls that allow you to see the sites your child has visited, or cybersecurity features that let you know what sites have been automatically blocked.

TP-Link also told CNET that it doesn't collect user browsing history for marketing purposes, but the company muddies the waters with confusing and contradictory language in its privacy policies. Section 1.2 of the company's main privacy policy says that browsing history is only collected when you use parental control features to monitor your child's web usage -- but a separate page for residents of California, where disclosure laws are more strict, says that browser history is collected using cookies, tags, pixels and other similar technologies, anonymized, and then shared internally within the TP-Link group for direct marketing purposes.

When I asked about that discrepancy, a TP-Link spokesperson explained that the cookies, tags and pixels mentioned in that California disclosure are referring to trackers used on TP-Link's website, and not referring to anything its routers are doing.

"I will say our policy can be clearer," the spokesperson said. "That's something we're kind of working on right now, internally."

CommScope, too, says that its products don't collect a user's browsing history -- though the company makes a distinction between retail products sold directly to consumers and the routers it provides via service partnerships with third-party partners, most notably internet service providers.

"Regarding our retail Surfboard products, CommScope has no access or visibility to an individual users' web browsing history or the content of the network traffic flowing through these retail products," a company spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, D-Link did not respond to multiple requests for clarification about its data collection practices, and it's unclear whether or not the company's products track any user browsing data. I'll update this post if and when I hear back.

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