Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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When it comes to tracking customers, few match the Wall Street Journal

August 4, 2010Privacy

Advertisers who track user behavior online always put in this qualifier: It's anonymous. In other words, they track a Web surfer who seems interested in new cars or romantic movies, but not the specific person. In its latest in a series on data tracking, the Wall Street Journal today reports that this anonymity is "in name only." New technologies can come close to zeroing in on the person with just a smattering of data. Peter Eckersley, staff scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, says, 33 bits on a person is enough.

Yet the Wall Street Journal, a vigorous customer tracker itself, doesn't have to go to all that trouble. A reader, Mark Naples, pointed out in an email that the Journal, one of few media outlets with a pay-wall, collects personally identifiable info online and has the ability to marry it with the behavior data scooped up with cookies.

Another commenter on this site, Michael Sandora, details the same points on his blog, Indigestion.  The difference between most data trackers and the Wall Street Journal, he writes, is this:

To a data tracker, I am a cookie number interested in bluegrass music, jam-bands, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and reading about digital media.

To the Wall Street Journal’s subscription service, I am Michael Sandora, email address:, credit card number ####-####-####-####, bluegrass listener, Star Wars fan, and digital media follower.

What's more, the Journal's privacy policy, dating from 2008, reserves the right to  share this valuable trove with "other select companies to send you promotional materials about their products and services (that is, unless you've told us not to do so...)

I subscribe to the Journal, use their site, and really don't have problems with their blending my behavioral data with the personally identifiable stuff. I don't mind targeted advertising. And as someone who has lived off of advertising in media my entire career, I want journalism to find a funcional business model for the Internet age. But if the Journal is going to write a series on data privacy, they should pay more than passing attention to the practices of their own company.

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