In a front page article paired with an in-depth Weekend Journal feature-length article , the Wall Street Journal today exposed the extent of little-known tracking files that the 50 most popular websites install on users’ computers: The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.
The article details the stunning news that the 50 most popular websites installed a total of 3,180 tracking files on a test computer. Only about one-third of these files were routine “cookies” that store information like passwords and preferences. The other two-thirds included files installed by ad networks that included “beacons” and other tracking files that can record keystroke activity.
When contacted, some of these popular websites were not even aware that their sites were installing some of these sophisticated tracking files on users’ computers — even though they were aware they were allowing ad networks to gather user data.
Dictionary.com, according to the WSJ report, installed 234 tracking files on their test computer. Of course, ad networks do not capture this information for personal snooping, the data they collect is not tracked by name. All the sites contacted also said their privacy policies disclosed their tracking practices. However, the WSJ reports the sophistication of the data gathering has increased due to a growth in a network of data resellers in the last 18 months.
When I read this article, I immediately went to Mashable.com to see what their take was. I was stunned to see there was nothing.
So let me break this down for the web ad industry: The WSJ’s article will put the web ad business squarely in the sites of government, regulators and congress. There is a very long history of Wall Street Journal “investigative” reports leading directly to regulatory changes — or new laws.
I, for one, have not had much to do with the world of web ad networks, don’t know a heck of a lot about this ad network industry, apart from understanding the basics. It isn’t evil, it’s not trying to spy on people — it’s trying to get relevant ads directed to people. I understand that. But the fact that the industry is now using tools that even their website hosts don’t know exist is very, very, very bad news. Foxes as chicken guards is a very very bad idea.
Everyone prepare for a new regulatory manure storm — it’s coming.
Here’s the WSJ’s list of “Top 10 sites that most expose user data” (which appeared in their info graphic in the print edition of today’s article) and the number of tracking files the WSJ claims they loaded on to a test computer:
- Dictionary.com / 234
- Merriam-webster.com / 131
- Comcast.net / 151
- Careerbuilder.com/ 118
- Photobucket.com/ 127
- MSN.com / 207
- Answers.com / 120
- Yellowpages.com / 89
- MSNBC.com / 117
- Yahoo.com/ 106