Companies tracking your identity and other personal information online are redefining what “anonymous” means.
Now, according to an investigation into tracking practices by the WSJ (subscription required), advertisers’ definition of the word “anonymous” includes: “We know your real name and email address and everything about you except your full browsing history.”
Take the example of Dataium LLC, a Kentucky tracking company that targets car shoppers. Dataium first grabs name and contact information from shoppers when they fill out Website forms on any of some 4,000-plus car dealers Dataium partners with. Dataium then performs an analysis on a customers’ web browsing history, and provides that analysis to the dealer. And so when the customer comes in to the dealership to look at cars, “I know now how to approach” him, the WSJ quotes Dataium co-founder Jason Ezell as having boasted to a car-dealer conference last year.
Bizarrely, Dataium still argues that a shoppers’ Web browsing is anonymous, even though it can be tied to their names. Dataium apparently adheres to the strict definition of anonymous: Dataium says it does not give dealers click-by-click details of people’s Web surfing history.
See the difference? It knows everything about you, including the specific cars you’ve been researching, and other interests. But it’s not passing on click-by-click details. Huge difference, right?
Well, not really. It’s certainly a challenge to the assumptions most consumers have about the definition of anonymous. Indeed, for a long time, online tracking companies have argued that the information they collect about you is anonymous, and therefore harmless, because while they may observe your browsing habits (and transfer that to advertisers who can then target you based on your behavior), they won’t send your actual name or contact info along to the advertiser — so no harm, right?
The Dataium examples shows that when you provide your name somewhere, such as a dealer site, advertisers have an easy time looping around the other way, to connect your name with your interests , which is the holy grail for retailers and other advertisers.
The Dataium example extends the power of tracking at a time when social networks have added to that power significantly over the past couple of years. The WSJ also examined nearly a thousand leading websites, and found that 75 percent now include code from social networks, such as Facebook’s “Like” or Twitter’s “Tweet” buttons. The code can match people’s identities with their Web-browsing activities, and can track a user’s arrival on a page if the button is never clicked. The social network companies argue that this is anonymous, again by using a strict definition: Somewhere along the line, identity information is removed, protected or separated from specific browsing history. As the WSJ explains, Facebook for example offers a service that shows ads to groups of people based on email address, but only if advertisers already have that address. Facebook says that it doesn’t give people’s email addresses to the advertiser.
Notably, the WSJ’s investigation found that its own website had shared “considerable amounts of users’ personal information,” including email addresses and real names of users, with at least three companies.
VentureBeat, in case you’re wondering, doesn’t collect the same sort of user information as the WSJ does, as we don’t have the extensive online profile information that the WSJ collects from its paid subscribers. So there’s nothing we’re doing on our site that allows a direct connection between your name and your browsing habits — unless of course, you’re clicking on an ad and leaving our site and then filling out forms online with your name and contact info. Like most other sites, we do have ad networks and Facebook like buttons that are tracking user activity, anonymously. And yes, I’m using “anonymously” in the traditional sense.