by Julia Angwin and Tom McGinty
July 30, 2010
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.
The tracking files represent the leading edge of a lightly regulated,
emerging industry of data-gatherers who are in effect establishing a new
business model for the Internet:
one based on intensive surveillance of
people to sell data about, and predictions of, their interests and
activities, in real time.
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.
It's rarely a
coincidence when you see Web ads for products that match
WSJ's Christina Tsuei
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 50 sites installed a total of 3,180 tracking files on a test computer
used to conduct the study.
Only one site, the encyclopedia Wikipedia.org,
Twelve sites, including,
IAC/InterActive Corp.'s Dictionary.com
Comcast Corp.'s Comcast.net
Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.com,
...installed more than 100 tracking tools apiece
in the course of the Journal's test.
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
...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
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
"We are delivering free content to
consumers," says Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy for the
Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group of advertisers and
"Sometimes it means that we get involved in a very complex
ecosystem with lots of third parties."
The growing use and power of tracking technology
have begun to raise regulatory concerns. Congress is considering laws to
Federal Trade Commission is developing
privacy guidelines for the industry.
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.