Websites sharing your info is more common than previously thought

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Popular websites you might use everyday are collecting visitor info and sharing it with marketing partners more often than you think, according to the findings of a Stanford University graduate student.

Jonathan Mayer released the results of a study last week that found info including first name, last name, birthday, physical address, e-mail address and phone number is routinely harvested and shared to multiple marketers, according to what I read in The Los Angeles Times.

In the course of his study, Mayer simply used different IDs and e-mail addresses to track who sold what to whom after visiting 185 popular sites.

Here’s a quick rundown of what his research turned up:

  • The Wall Street Journal shared Mayer’s personal info with seven different companies.
  • Home Depot shared his info with 13 different companies.
  • Photobucket shared his info with a whopping 31 companies!

Response from the companies

The Wall Street Journal — a proponent of vigorous reporting on computer privacy issues — says they are “aware of a bug and have since corrected the issue.”

Steve Holmes, Home Depot’s Senior Manager of Corporate Communications, contacted me to clarify a misimpression I may have given when I originally went to the microphone with this story.

“This information in question is only shared with our own marketing vendors and only after someone registers on our site,” Holmes wrote in an e-mail. “Just a few hours after we found out about this study, we made adjustments to limit the information we share with the vendors servicing our local ad program.” He went on to explain that Home Depot does “not sell, rent or trade anyone’s information” and all info harvesting is done within the terms of the company’s privacy policy.

Photobucket had no comment on the report.

A solution and a generational observation

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Mayer suggests the way to avoid this whole problem is to stop it at the source. “The best thing they can do is to block advertising, because the moment content is loaded on the browser there is a risk of tracking,” he told The Los Angeles Times.

The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that how you react to a lack of privacy on the Internet has a lot to do with your age.

The younger you are, the more you shrug your shoulders because you’ve grown up with Facebook, Twitter and everything else. The older you are, the more likely you are to be fired up. It really is a generational thing.

The worst case scenario regarding all this info sharing is that it might somehow result in identity theft. To that end, I want to let you know that the Consumer Federation of America has launched a new website called IDTheftInfo.org that offers guidance on what you should do if identity theft happens to you.



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