Sites Feed Personal Details To New Tracking Industry

The largest U.S. websites are installing new and intrusive consumer-tracking technologies on the computers of people visiting their sites—in some cases, more than 100 tracking tools at a time—a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

In an effort to quantify the reach and sophistication of the tracking industry, the Journal examined the 50 most popular websites in the U.S. to measure the quantity and capabilities of the “cookies,” “beacons” and other trackers installed on a visitor’s computer by each site. Together, the 50 sites account for roughly 40% of U.S. page-views.The Journal’s study shows the extent to which Web users are in effect exchanging personal data for the broad access to information and services that is a defining feature of the Internet.

073010cookies1_512x288.jpg

It’s rarely a coincidence when you see Web ads for products that match your interests. WSJ’s Christina Tsuei explains how advertisers use cookies to track your online habits.

The Journal also surveyed its own site, WSJ.com, which doesn’t rank among the top 50 by visitors. WSJ.com installed 60 tracking files, slightly below the 64 average for the top 50 sites.

Some two-thirds of the tracking tools installed—2,224—came from 131 companies that, for the most part, are in the business of following Internet users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold. The companies that placed the most such tools were Google Inc., Microsoft. and Quantcast Corp., all of which are in the business of targeting ads at people online.

Google, Microsoft and Quantcast all said they don’t track individuals by name and offer Internet users a way to remove themselves from their tracking networks. Comcast, MSN and Dictionary.com said they disclose tracking practices in their privacy policies, and said their visitors aren’t identified by name.

The state of the art is growing increasingly intrusive, the Journal found. Some tracking files can record a person’s keystrokes online and then transmit the text to a data-gathering company that analyzes it for content, tone and clues to a person’s social connections. Other tracking files can re-spawn trackers that a person may have deleted.

To measure the sensitivity of the data gathered by tracking companies, the Journal created an “exposure index” for the top 50 sites. Dictionary.com ranked highest in exposing users to potentially aggressive surveillance: It installed 168 tracking tools that didn’t let users decline to be tracked, and 121 tools that, according to their privacy statements, don’t rule out collecting financial or health data. Dictionary.com attributed the number of tools to its use of many different ad networks, each of which puts tools on its site.

Some of the tracking files identified by the Journal were so detailed that they verged on being anonymous in name only. They enabled data-gathering companies to build personal profiles that could include age, gender, race, zip code, income, marital status and health concerns, along with recent purchases and favorite TV shows and movies.

The ad industry says tracking doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy because the data sold doesn’t identify people by name, and the tracking activity is disclosed in privacy policies. And while many companies are involved in collecting, analyzing and selling the data, they provide a useful service by raising the chance Internet users see ads and information relevant to them personally.

If “you were in the Gap, and the sales associate said to you, ‘OK, from now on, since you shopped here today, we are going to follow you around the mall and view your consumer transactions,’ no person would ever agree to that,” Sen. George LeMieux, R-Florida, said this week in a Senate hearing on Internet privacy.The growing use and power of tracking technology have begun to raise regulatory concerns. Congress is considering laws to limit tracking. The Federal Trade Commission is developing privacy guidelines for the industry.

By JULIA ANGWIN and TOM MCGINTY

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s