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Your Secrets, Medical Info and Sexual Habits are Being Grabbed, Compiled and Resold Online

A new book offers ways to block cyber-tracking.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright Semisach


Julia Angwin’s book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest For Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, looks at what’s going on behind our computer screens. It describes how Silicon Valley’s newest business model is tracking our digital lives and selling that information—and how hard it is to stop them.

Steven Rosenfeld spoke to Angwin, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who is now with Pro Publica, about what websites, including online dating and pornography, are grabbing, compiling and reselling, and what cyber tools can be used to stop the data miners.

Steven Rosenfeld: Your book starts with a couple who met in a online forum and discovered that Nielsen, the TV ratings company, broke into their chatroom and was spying on them. The same company was also selling client profile metrics to drug manufacturers. What were they looking for? What were they finding?

Julia Angwin: Actually, the couple met in a patients’ forum. It was a password-protected site for people who are patients. These two people both were suffering from depression and they were there to talk about their issues with depression. So, we don’t actually know for sure what information the drug makers wanted from this. But most likely, they wanted to find out who was using their drugs, and what kind of results they’re having. They like to try to find that information online. So they hire people to scrape all sorts of info from the web and look for information.

SR: So we have two people who were in a chatroom, seeking some comfort and understanding, and they didn’t know that this wasn’t private. How common is that?

JA: I don’t think it’s that common, actually, that this kind of break-in occurs. After it happened, Nielsen said that they were not going to do that anymore—to make a fake patient profile to get into the forum; and then they were scraping data off. But what is common is the second part of the story, which is the forum itself, which notified the people about the break-in. It said, "By the way, in case you didn’t read the fine print on our website, we also sell the data about our users to different companies to analyze."

Interestingly, people were more outraged about the site itself than about the break-in. But they hadn’t realized that they had given up that right to have confidentiality when they entered this website. And I think that most privacy issues are weird that way. We have signed away our rights but we didn’t know it.     

SR: Let’s talk about online dating and sex sites: pornography and even prostitution. What digital trails are people leaving? What user profiles are being generated that people don’t know about?

JA: When you visit any website, whether it’s a dating or a shopping website, there’s most likely an invisible tracking technology on the page by third parties—not the site that you are visiting, but other sites. They basically are building profiles of users. So they notice that you arrive. They don’t know your name. They have a cookie ID—so you are 1-2-3-4-5-6. So you add that to all the other places on the Internet that they see you. They get a very robust view of who you are.

SR: Is there any way for people to erase these traces and profiles?

JA: One thing I want to say to people is that what doesn’t work is this incognito mode in the web browser. Chrome has incognito. Microsoft has in-private browsing. They lead you to believe that you aren’t leaving any traces. But actually that’s not true. Those companies have seen you arrive at a website and notice it already in their profile of you. All that does is removes the cookie from the rest of your browsing session so that anyone else who uses the computer doesn’t see where you were—if they looked at your cookies. So it’s really about protecting yourself from another user of your computer, but it’s not protecting your privacy from third parties who want to keep tracking you.

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