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How Microsoft and Yahoo Are Selling Politicians Access to You

Campaigns use voters records to assemble lists of people they're trying to reach. Microsoft and Yahoo help campaigns find these people online and then send them tailored ads.

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Microsoft and Yahoo both said the cookies aren't connected directly to names or other personally identifying information. Instead, they use a complicated process to match coded voter information back to anonymous cookies on particular users' browsers.

But many parts of the process remain unclear since the companies were reluctant to explain the details of their matching and targeting.

Microsoft said that the credit reporting giant Experian performs a "double-blind" match between Microsoft's data and campaigns' data. Yahoo uses another massive data company, Acxiom. Both Experian and Acxiom also offer similar matching for commercial clients who want to find previous customers online.

"They don't need your permission to do this," said William McGeveran, a data privacy expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. As long as a company has not explicitly promised users not to do this kind of matching, the process is legal for both political and commercial entities, McGeveran said.

Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL all point out that users who don't want to be targeted can opt out.

"At AOL, we take privacy very seriously," Caroline Campbell, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an email. "We strongly support self-regulation, consumer transparency and choice, and responsible uses of data."

The Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, offers a one-page site that allows users to turn off targeted advertising from a long list of prominent companies. Another industry group, the Digital Advertising Alliance, also offers a one-page opt-out site.

But you need to realize you're being tracked before you can decide whether to opt out.

Under the online ad industry's self-regulations, most targeted ads are marked with a tinyblue triangle and a phrase like "Ad Choices." Web surfers can click on this icon, read some general information about targeted ads, and find a link to a page that will allow them to opt out of receiving such ads in the future. Few ever notice or understandthe symbol.

Speaking to an industry audience at the CampaignTech conference in Washington, D.C., in April, Cotten, from Yahoo, said less than one percent of Yahoo's users have chosen to opt out of targeted advertising.

"Most users are not even cognizant that they're being targeted," he said.

Nor are the companies' privacy policies much help.

Microsoft's privacy policy makes no mention of matching people's names and Zip codes against voter lists.

The Microsoft online privacy highlights page notes that the company collects users' personal information, and that "We use the information we collect to provide the services you request. Our services may include the display of personalized content and advertising." Like Yahoo and other companies, Microsoft's privacy policy is broken up over several different Web pages.

In an "advertising privacy supplement" Microsoft explains it may target ads using data from other companies, as well as "demographic or interest data, including any you may have provided when creating a Windows Live ID (e.g. age, ZIP or postal code, gender)." It does not say whether it classifies users' first and last names as "demographic or interest data."

"You are in charge of deciding whether we know anything about you," Microsoft explainselsewhere. "But the more you tell us about yourself, the more we can help you find information or products you want."

Yahoo's more straightforward privacy policy on data matching explains that the company may combine its users' personally identifiable information with information from other companies in order to customize ads. It names CampaignGrid, a political targeting firm, as one company that helps Yahoo! "provide more relevant content and advertising." Yahoo told ProPublica users' registration data is "consensually provided."