The rise in Internet use and popularity has lead to a corresponding rise in monitoring technologies. Parents can monitor their children’s web use, employers can track where their employees spend time online, and website owners can see how many visitors their sites are attracting and where those visitors are coming from, among other things. Internet service providers can keep tabs on how much bandwidth their customers are using, and copyright owners regularly track and identify individuals who share protected works online. Monitoring the Internet for these and other purposes has become relatively commonplace, and there are as many methods for monitoring as there are reasons to monitor in the first place.
Tracking which individual websites a user accesses is one of the most common methods if monitoring the Internet. Website monitoring is usually achieved with a software program installed at the network or personal computer level. The program will keep a cache, or a log, of all the sites visited in any browsing session. Most of the time, this monitoring goes completely undetected, and does not interfere at all with the user’s experience.
Employers commonly use software-based tools to monitor the Internet in work environments. Monitoring allows companies to track where employees are spending their time, and to keep tabs on whether employees are accessing inappropriate or illegal content from work computers. Parents often use similar Internet monitoring software on home computers to identify all of the sites that their children have accessed. Most of the time, monitoring software can also be set up to block access to certain sites. This is useful for parents who want to keep young children from stumbling into graphic content online, as well as for employers who want to keep their employees out of personally-oriented sites like e-mail and social networking during the workday.
Not all tracking is done at the local level, however. Many methods of monitoring the Internet focus on identifying visitors to websites, which is usually achieved at the site level. A website owner can install tracking devices on the website itself that will monitor the number of visitors, the origin of those visitors, and where those visitors went next, all without installing anything on the visitor’s computer. Most of the time, site traffic monitoring is achieved through internet protocol (IP) address tracking.
When a computer connects to the Internet, it is assigned a unique IP address. The IP address identifies the computer by geographic location and Internet service provider, but never by name. In order to learn the identities of IP address owners, one must usually present the relevant Internet service provider with a court order.
Copyright owners frequently track the visitors to different peer-to-peer downloading sites, monitoring the data exchanges for protected files. Most movie and song files are protected by international copyrights, and sharing them online without permission is illegal in many places. Content owners who can track which IP addresses are connected with allegedly illegal downloads often use that information to prosecute individuals for copyright infringement.
Not all Internet monitoring is legitimate, however. Cyber criminals and spyware operators often track web users' movements online in order to serve advertisements, steal passwords, and build identity profiles. Much of this kind of tracking happens through cookies, which are small packets of information surreptitiously downloaded onto users' computers.
Monitoring the Internet can also be used as a means to keep track of Internet usage. Internet service providers typically set caps on how much bandwidth subscribers can use in any given month without paying overage fees. The providers determine which users have gone over by monitoring bandwidth use over time. To avoid penalty, individual subscribers will often install software-based meters for monitoring the Internet bandwidth that they have used.