By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY

For more than a decade, tracking systems have been taking note of where you go and what you search for on the Web — without your permission. And today many of the personal details you voluntarily divulge on popular websites and social networks are being similarly tracked and analyzed.

The purpose for all of this online snooping is singular: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and others are intent on delivering more relevant online ads to each and every one of us — and bagging that advertising money.

Trouble is, the tracking data culled from your Internet searches and surfing can get commingled with the information you disclose at websites for shopping, travel, health or jobs. And it’s now possible to toss into this mix many of the personal disclosures you make on popular social networks, along with the preferences you may express via all those nifty Web applications that trigger cool services on your mobile devices.

As digital shadowing escalates, so too have concerns about the erosion of traditional notions of privacy. Privacy advocates have long fretted that health companies, insurers, lenders, employers, lawyers, regulators and law enforcement could begin to acquire detailed profiles derived from tracking data to use unfairly against people. Indeed, new research shows that as tracking technologies advance, and as more participants join the burgeoning tracking industry, the opportunities for privacy invasion are rising.

“It is a mistake to consider (online) tracking benign,” cautions Sagi Leizerov, executive director of Ernst & Young’s privacy services. “It’s both an opportunity for amazing connections of data, as well as a time bomb of revealing personal information you assume will be kept private.”

These developments are acting like kerosene on the already contentious national debates in Congress over how privacy ought to be recast to fit the Internet age. Much is at stake. The corporations involved are vying for the juiciest claims on a golden vein. Research firm eMarketer projects global spending for online ads to climb to $132 billion by 2015, up from $80.2 billion this year.

The technology, retail and media giants shaping this brave new world of online advertising insist that they respect — and can be trusted to preserve — individuals’ privacy, even as they compete to dissect each person’s likes and dislikes.

Tracking mobile apps

However, startling findings, to be released on Thursday here at the Black Hat security conference, indicate otherwise. Website security company Dasient recently found examples of PC-based tracking techniques getting extended in a troublesome way to Internet-connected mobile devices.

Dasient analyzed 10,000 free mobile apps that enable gaming, financial services, entertainment and other services on Google Android smartphones. Researchers found more than 8%, or 842, of the Android apps took the unusual step of asking users’ permission to access the handset’s International Mobile Equipment Identity number, the unique code assigned to each cellphone. The IMEI was then employed as the user ID for the given app. In a number of instances, the app subsequently forwarded the user’s IMEI on to an online advertising network, says Neil Daswani, Dasient’s chief technology officer.

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