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Over Easy: Watching You, Watching Me!

I’ve posted here at Over Easy about companies that track our travels on the Web to display ads customized to our interests. They often use cookies, so if you price out an upscale cruise or golf club on one site, ads for cruises or golf clubs follow you around the Web. There are other tracking tools, too, and it is a running battle to stay ahead of them. They’re getting even more intrusive and personal, and it is unsettling to comprehend their reach.

More and more online marketers attempt to track us offline too, by collecting data about our daily lives and habits. According to a fascinating Wall Street Journal investigation, one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. NOTE: To avoid the paywall to the WSJ article, Google “The Web’s New Gold Mine” and click on the link to the article, which should be the top hit. (Also see the note at the end of this post.) LATE DAY UPDATE: The article no longer can be accessed via Google as I described. It is now thoroughly locked down. Sorry!

Here’s but one way this works — there are many others as the technology gets more sophisticated.

  • A retailer collects the email addresses of its customers. It’s why stores keep asking for our email, and sometimes offer a small freebie to entice us to provide it. They especially like to get email addresses of their big spending customers.
  • A digital marketing firm locates customers online when they use their email address to log into a website that has a relationship with the marketing firm. This website allows the firm to put a tracker — a long string of letters and numbers — on the the customer’s computer.
  • When the customer goes online to the retailer’s website, they see a customized version of the site that shows offerings especially tailored for their (high-spending) interests.

Tracking people using their real names is known as “onboarding,” and it’s not used only for retail activity. (“Onboarding” is more commonly a term for integrating a newly hired employee into a work environment. In this context it is data onboarding.) According to LiveRamp, a major provider of data onboarding recently purchased by our old friend Acxiom (remember them??),

Our customers send us large ‘offline’ datasets of user records for us to deliver anonymized versions of these records to an ‘online’ destination, such as an ad network or data management platform. By ‘online,’ we mean that the data record is anonymized and associated with a browser or device, enabling the customer to run ad campaigns that retarget their audience, or to measure offline conversions in response to an online campaign.

In 2012, ProPublica documented how Microsoft and Yahoo sell politicians access to us. Back then, Google and Facebook told ProPublica they don’t offer these political matching services. But since then, Facebook and Twitter started offering onboarding services that allow advertisers (presumably including politicians) to find their customers online.

Another firm in the “onboarding” space is Lotame. According to the WSJ investigation, this is how it works:

Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny.

The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include ‘The Princess Bride,’ ’50 First Dates’ and ’10 Things I Hate About You.’ It knows she enjoys the ‘Sex and the City’ series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes. [snip] Lotame uses sophisticated software called a ‘beacon’ to capture what people are typing on a website—their comments on movies, say, or their interest in parenting and pregnancy. Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person’s name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers.

The WSJ’s investigation revealed that:

• Tracking consumers is more pervasive and more intrusive than we realize, and that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

What is even more creepy is the extent to which we are subject to this intrusion, mostly without our knowledge. The WSJ study examined this tracking, including on its own website, and while roughly a third of the tracking is innocuous, used to remember a login password to a favorite website, or to tally clicks on certain web page items, more than two-thirds of the trackers were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create databases of consumer profiles that then are sold on one of the exchanges. Which website is the number one tracker? So if you look up a word, they’ll potentially download 234 files or programs, 223 from companies that track Web users!

It is to our advantage to try to understand the extent of this tracking, because it can and will be used for purposes other than to sell us stuff. I doubt that most people — even sophisticated Internet users — have a clue about this pervasive and intrusive tracking.

NOTE: The entire WSJ article is definitely worth the time to find via Google and read. It is loaded with diagrams and illustrations and much more information than I’ve summarized or quoted. If you are so inclined, you might choose to subscribe to the Journal ($24 for 12 weeks digital + print) and read the entire 5-part series. The series and their other news pages might be well worth the price, and you can line your bird’s cage or cat’s litter box with their right-wing editorial page!

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."