Thursday, August 18, 2011

I'm shocked, shocked that we're tracking your Web-browsing history

Major websites such as MSN.com and Hulu.com have been tracking people's online activities using powerful new methods that are almost impossible for computer users to detect, new research shows. ...

Hulu and MSN were installing files known as "supercookies," which are capable of re-creating users' profiles after people deleted regular cookies, according to researchers at Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley. ...

Mike Hintze, associate general counsel at MSN parent company Microsoft Corp., said that when the supercookie "was brought to our attention, we were alarmed. It was inconsistent with our intent and our policy." He said the company removed the computer code, which had been created by Microsoft.

Hulu posted a statement online saying it "acted immediately to investigate and address" the issues identified by researchers. It declined to comment further. ...

Such tracking peers into people's Web-browsing histories to see if they previously had visited any of more than 1,500 websites, including ones dealing with fertility problems, menopause and credit repair, the researchers said. History stealing has been identified on other sites in recent years, but rarely at that scale. ...

Don Mathis, chief executive of Epic, says his company was inadvertently using the technology and no longer uses it. He said the information was used only to verify the accuracy of data that it had bought from other vendors. ...

Microsoft's Mr. Hintze said that the company removed the code after being contacted by Mr. Mayer, and that Microsoft is still trying to figure out why the code was created. A spokeswoman said the data gathered by the supercookie were used only by Microsoft and weren't shared with outside companies.
--Julia Angwin, WSJ, on profitable “mistakes” that were inadvertent but actively used