ProPublica's Excellent Investigation of Online Tracking By Retailers

Thursday, June 12, 2014 - 10:29 AM

Imagine the "M" is an advertiser. That makes it spooky. (Fritz Lang's "M")

It's no secret that we're being tracked from place to place on the internet to better market us products. There was a great big initiative by privacy advocates to create a “do not track” option on the internet a couple years ago to address this very issue, but that failed spectacularly. ProPublica’s Julia Angwin, who has reported on privacy and technology for years, has released an investigative report detailing just how creepy it is.

Angwin sets out a particularly pernicious example of this kind of behavior in her article:

  • A retailer—let's call it The Pricey Store—collects the e-mail addresses of its high-spending customers. (Ever wonder why stores keep bugging you for your email at the checkout counter these days?)

  • The Pricey Store brings the list to LiveRamp, which locates the customers online when the customers use their email address to log into a website that has a relationship with LiveRamp. (The identity of these websites is a closely guarded secret.) The website that has a relationship with LiveRamp then allows LiveRamp to "tag" the customers' computer with a tracker.

  • When those high-spending customers arrive at PriceyStore.com, they see a version of the site customized to "show more expensive offerings to them." (Yes, the marketing documents really say that.)

The article is full of great investigative material from ProPublica, and it brings to mind the now classic example of totally unregulated data collection where Target knew a teenager was pregnant before her father did based solely on data collected about her as a consumer. You should check out Agwin’s article here.

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. You can subscribe to our podcast here. You can follow our blog here. We’re also on Twitter, and we play Team Fortress 2 more or less constantly, so find us there if you like to communicate via computer games from six years ago.

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