The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the privacy issues that can arise as companies identify individuals and tie them to their online browsing and shopping:
Georgia resident Andy Morar is in the market for a BMW. So recently he sent a note to a showroom near Atlanta, using a form on the dealer’s website to provide his name and contact information.
His note went to the dealership—but it also went, without his knowledge, to a company that tracks car shoppers online. In a flash, an analysis of the auto websites Mr. Morar had anonymously visited could be paired with his real name and studied by his local car dealer. […]
The widening ability to associate people’s real-life identities with their browsing habits marks a privacy milestone, further blurring the already unclear border between our public and private lives. In pursuit of ever more precise and valuable information about potential customers, tracking companies are redefining what it means to be anonymous. […]
The use of real identities across the Web is going mainstream at a rapid clip. A Wall Street Journal examination of nearly 1,000 top websites found that 75% now include code from social networks, such as Facebook‘s “Like” or Twitter’s “Tweet” buttons. Such code can match people’s identities with their Web-browsing activities on an unprecedented scale and can even track a user’s arrival on a page if the button is never clicked. […]
Dataium said dealers can see only an analysis of the person’s behavior, not the raw details of every car site a person visits. The information is tied to people’s email addresses only when people provide them to a dealer voluntarily, Dataium said. […]
Companies that conduct online tracking have long argued that the information they collect is anonymous, and therefore innocuous. But the industry’s definition of “anonymous” has shifted over time. […]
In the past, tracking companies and retailers had a tougher time identifying online users. Today, a single Web page can contain computer code from dozens of different ad companies or tracking firms. These separate chunks of code often share information with each other. For example: If, like Mr. Morar the car-shopper, you give your name to a website, it can sometimes be seen by other companies with ads or special coding on the site.