| Fri Aug. 13, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a terrific series of stories called "What They Know." The general subject was personal privacy—or the lack of it—in the digital world, and the first article in the series explained how websites routinely track your movements on the web and collect a genuinely astonishing amount of personal information about you in the process. The Journal examined 50 sites using a test computer and discovered that these sites collectively installed a total of 3,180 tracking files—an average of 63 tracking files per site:
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.
....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.
A full list of the sites they examined is here. The most intrusive were and, which installed over 200 tracking files each. The least intrusive were and
What to do about this? Europe, which generally has better rules than the U.S. regarding the collection and use of personal data, actually has tighter regulations about how long online data should be stored. After all, the local police might want to use it someday. The Christian Science Monitor reports that this is finally provoking a reaction:
Across Europe, a backlash against the storage of private data is growing. Civil society groups like the European Federation of Journalists have criticized the practice, and in Germany almost 35,000 people, including Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, sued their own government over the issue.
"There is a real problem in Europe today. It is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to a private life. That fundamental right has to extend into digital life," says Christian Engström, a member of the European Parliament for Sweden's controversial Pirate Party, elected on a platform of digital rights.
This tension means that governments aren't always eager to restrict the collection of personal data online. Beyond that, though, there are technical difficulties for those who want to prohibit the practice. When Congress passed the Do Not Call law in 2003, their job was easy: everyone has a telephone number, and all you have to do is put those numbers into a database and tell solicitors not to call them. But there's no equivalent of a phone number in the digital world. Your computer's ID is its IP address, but most IP addresses change regularly. There's no way of creating a "Do Not Track" database and telling online solicitors to keep their tracking files away from everyone who signs up.
Alternatively, as Harlan Yu wrote recently, we could adopt the opposite approach: instead of asking users to register, we could require solicitors to register and then rely on browser settings that would prevent their domains from installing tracking files. Unfortunately, this has technical drawbacks as well, so Yu suggests instead a new standard that would allow your browser to notify every site you visit that you don't wish to be tracked:
The browser could enable x-notrack for every HTTP connection, or for connections to only third party sites, or for connections to some set of user-specified sites. Upon receiving the signal not to track, the site would be prevented, by FTC regulation, from setting any persistent identifiers on the user’s machine or using any other side-channel mechanism to uniquely identify the browser and track the interaction.
This would, of course, require legislation that requires online sites to honor the x-notrack request. That's the bad news. The good news is that whatever the eventual solution, the problem itself is finally getting some attention on Capitol Hill: Politico reported last week that Sen. Mark Pryor (D–AR) is writing a bill "aiming to give consumers more control over their online data....The focus of the bill, which is still in rough draft form, will be giving consumers the ability to opt out of being tracked across the Web." So stay tuned.
In the meantime, the Journal's full package of privacy articles is here, and they're well worth browsing through. It includes pieces that explain web tracking, cell phone monitoring, how much these tracking services know about you, the role of big companies like Google and Microsoft, and even advice on how to avoid tracking. You can't avoid it all, but there are things you can do to minimize it.
 What They Know
The Wall Street Journal's What They Know series documents the new, cutting-edge uses of this Internet-tracking technology.
Marketers are spying on Internet users -- observing and remembering people's clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests. The Wall Street Journal's What They Know series documents the new, cutting-edge uses of this Internet-tracking technology. The Journal analyzed the tracking files installed on people's computers by the 50 most popular U.S. websites, plus The Journal also built an "exposure index" -- to determine the degree to which each site exposes visitors to monitoring -- by studying the tracking technologies they install and the privacy policies that guide their use.
Is a site you are interested in not here?
Enter a URL and get more info about its privacy policies:
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  • Explore the Data

    The Journal analyzed the tracking files installed on people's computers by the 50 most popular U.S. websites, plus See what the study found.
  • Video: A Guide to Cookies

    It's rarely a coincidence when you see Web ads for products that match your interests. The Journal explains how advertisers use cookies to track your online habits.
  • [WTKTRAKpromoD]

    One Smart Cookie

    New York ad company [x+1] made predictions about users based on just one click on a website. Read more about the users and the companies' assumptions.
  • [GOOGLEDOCSpromo]

    Google: Into the Future

    A confidential internal document from 2008 outlines ways Google could try to profit from its vast databases of personal information. See excerpts from the document.
  • [WTKGOOGLEpromo]

    Google's Widening Reach

    Google, a company with vast pools of data about its users, is moving into the world of highly targeted ads. See how Google has changed its collection and use of data.

The Great Privacy Debate

  • [0806print]

    Why Tracking Isn't Bad

    It's modern commerce: Web users get back as much as they give, says Jim Harper.
  • [Jump lede2]

    The Dangers of Web Tracking

    As companies strive to personalize services, the surreptitious collection of personal information is rampant. The very idea of privacy is under threat, says Nicholas Carr.

More From Digits

  • Online Advertisers Defend Industry Amid Web-Privacy DebateOnline-advertising advocates -- citing a “War Against the Web” -- are gearing up to defend their industry as the debate about Web privacy intensifies.
  • Lawmakers Seek Answers on Online TrackingLawmakers are seeking information about the privacy practice of the 15 websites that the Wall Street Journal identified as installing the most tracking technology on their visitors' computers.
  • Digits Live Show: Avoiding Prying Eyes OnlineThe WSJ's Jennifer Valentino-DeVries discusses the types of tracking technologies encountered on sites across the Web, and gives some guidance about how to manage your exposure online.
  • The Information That Is Needed to Identify You: 33 BitsMany data collectors assure consumers that they don't collect or store personally identifiable information. But researchers say it's often possible to identify people even without that information.
  • So Many Trackers, So Little Time
  • The Mystery of Internet Explorer's Privacy Settings 
  • **********************************************
  • Covert National Mass Surveillance Grid Exposed
    Battlefield Technologies Migrate Home
    Never has it been more urgent for people around the country to take action to end the government’s mass surveillance against the people.
    One Nation 1 Sm.Most people are not aware that silently, but constantly, the government is now watching, recording your everyday travels and storing years of your activities in massive data warehouses that can be quickly “mined” to find out when and where you have been, whom you’ve visited, meetings you’ve attended, and activities you’ve taken part in. This is all done by using an elaborate network of Automatic License Plate Recognition cameras, also known as tag readers.
    The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has spent years investigating and uncovering this mass surveillance grid that is being put in place in the United States in the absence of public awareness, scrutiny, debate or oversight.
    It’s a system of mass surveillance and data warehousing on law-abiding persons and citizens. You’re being tracked routinely, without probable cause, without a warrant and without even a suspicion that you have committed a crime.
    The public has a right to know about this program and to stop it. The PCJF has established a national campaign, One Nation Under Surveillance, with a proactive website providing the tools and information you can use to take action now.
    ALPR is a technology of social control. And it’s not just critics who call it so. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, which itself favors tag readers, acknowledged in a report “The potential privacy harm of surveillance is its potential use as a tool of social control.”
    At our campaign site,, you can:
    • Send a letter to representatives in Congress demanding public hearings to expose this widespread but covert mass surveillance. It will only take a minute. A sample letter is included feel free to add your own message. click here
    Background on Tag Readers;
    Battlefield and Occupation Technologies Migrate Home:
    One Nation 3 Sm.Originally developed by the United Kingdom to be used against the Irish Republican Army, later deployed by the U.S. in Baghdad, tag readers have now been adapted for routine and massive deployment against civilians in the U.S.
    Tag readers are physical cameras that can be stationary, mounted on traffic poles, gates or bridges, hidden in white and orange traffic barrels, or disguised in roof-mounted taxi-signs. A tag reader captures thousands of license plates per minute, day or night and records the date, time, photo of the vehicle and possibly occupants, its immediate area and GPS coordinates.
    The federal government has spent millions of dollars outfitting local law enforcement, from big cities, to the smallest towns with tag reader systems. Using the pretext of drug interdiction and border enforcement, the federal government has installed its own network of cameras that has grown and continues to grow well past the borders throughout the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security has created customized software to integrate the surveillance data obtained through all the different vendor systems that are on the market and used by different localities. The federal government has a massive datastorage center for tag reader information located in Northern Virginia.
    Read more about tag readers in PCJF’s first article in a new series.
    With a plate and a cross-reference to other databases (like the Department of Motor Vehicles, credit card companies and phone records) a full profile about you can easily be created through electronic and computer data. The fusion of license plate reader data with commercial databases and intelligence databases gives the government virtually unlimited knowledge of our activities and associations.
    Working together we can halt this operation. With exposure and concerted public opposition, this program can be stopped.
    Become a part of PCJF’s campaign to end illegal government surveillance -- take action today.
    Reject Mass Surveillance, Take Action Now


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