The Wall Street Journal is so serious about covering the explosion in online data tracking, the paper has even outed itself.

From the WSJ’s Weekend Edition:


They Know What You’re Shopping For

‘You’re looking at the premium package, right?’ Companies today are increasingly tying people’s real-life identities to their online browsing habits.

Georgia resident Andy Morar is in the market for a BMW. So recently he sent a note to a showroom near Atlanta, using a form on the dealer’s website to provide his name and contact information.

His note went to the dealership—but it also went, without his knowledge, to a company that tracks car shoppers online. In a flash, an analysis of the auto websites Mr. Morar had anonymously visited could be paired with his real name and studied by his local car dealer.

When told that a salesman on the showroom floor could, in effect, peer into his computer activities at home, Mr. Morar said: “The less they know, the better.”


That’s the opposite of what’s actually happening.

The onlne data industry clearly thinks the more they know, the better. So its definition of “anonymous” web browsing has turned into “synonymous” tracking.


After an epic regulatory battle in the early 2000s over Web privacy, the online ad industry generally concluded that “anonymous” meant that a firm had no access to “PII,” the industry term for “personally identifiable information.” Now, however, some companies describe tracking or advertising as anonymous even if they have or use people’s real names or email addresses.

Their argument: It’s still anonymous because the identity information is removed, protected or separated from browsing history.


That’s classic doublespeak from the online vampires (whom the Journal has relentlessly dogged in its invaluable What They Know series), as is this:


“We will serve ads to you based on your identity,” said Erin Egan, chief privacy officer at Facebook, “but that doesn’t mean you’re identifiable.”


The Journal, to its credit, doesn’t spare itself in this investigation:


The Journal’s own website shared considerable amounts of users’ personal information. It sent the email addresses and real names of users to three companies. The site also transmitted other details, including gender and birth year, which allows people to submit when they fill out their website profile.


Read the whole piece. This is serious business.


John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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