The Wall Street Journal continues its in-depth report, “What They Know,” about the state of surveillance in the United States and how these surveillance programs affect individual privacy. In the latest installments, the Journal takes a look how online tracking company RapLeaf is able to identify people browsing online by their real names and also how politicians, among others, are using this identification data for online targeted behavioral advertising. (Related: A Journal report on RapLeaf CEO Auren Hoffman’s thoughts on privacy. Jim Dempsey, a privacy expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, has resigned from RapLeaf’s advisory board. And: Learn more about my views on online targeted behavioral advertising.)
In “A Web Pioneer Profiles Users by Name,” the Journal takes a detailed look at online tracking firm RapLeaf:
RapLeaf knows even more about Mrs. Twombly and millions of other Americans: their real names and email addresses. This makes RapLeaf a rare breed. Rival tracking companies also gather minute detail on individual Americans: They know a tremendous amount about what you do. But most trackers either can’t or won’t keep the ultimate piece of personal information—your name—in their databases. The industry often cites this layer of anonymity as a reason online tracking shouldn’t be considered intrusive.
RapLeaf says it never discloses people’s names to clients for online advertising. But possessing real names means RapLeaf can build extraordinarily intimate databases on people by tapping voter-registration files, shopping histories, social-networking activities and real estate records, among other things. […]
RapLeaf ranks among the most sophisticated players in the fast-growing business of profiling people online and trading in personal details of their lives, an industry that is the focus of a Journal investigation. The San Francisco startup says it has 1 billion e-mail addresses in its database.
RapLeaf acknowledges collecting names. It says it doesn’t include Web-browsing behavior in its database, and it strips out names, email addresses and other personally identifiable data from profiles before selling them for online advertising.
Nevertheless, the Journal found that, in certain circumstances, RapLeaf had transmitted identifying details about Mrs. Twombly—such as a unique Facebook ID number, which can be linked back to a person’s real name—to at least 12 companies. The Journal also found RapLeaf had transmitted a unique MySpace ID number (which is sometimes linked to a person’s real name), to six companies. MySpace is owned by News Corp., which publishes the Journal.
RapLeaf says its transmission of Facebook and MySpace IDs was inadvertent and the practice was ended after the Journal brought it to the company’s attention. The company says people can permanently opt out of its services at RapLeaf.com. […]
Data gathered and sold by RapLeaf can be very specific. According to documents reviewed by the Journal, RapLeaf’s segments recently included a person’s household income range, age range, political leaning, and gender and age of children in the household, as well as interests in topics including religion, the Bible, gambling, tobacco, adult entertainment and “get rich quick” offers. In all, RapLeaf segmented people into more than 400 categories, the documents indicated.
In “Politicians Tap Sophisticated Online Tracking Tools,” the Journal reports on politicians who are using RapLeaf’s vast and detailed database on individuals’ habits in order to target them in ads:
Politicians are deploying sophisticated new technologies to track Internet users—sometimes by name—and identify their political leanings. Officials and consultants with both major parties are using the techniques ahead of next month’s election, which include matching voter names from registration rolls with online profiles and studying voters’ online “body language.”
“As political professionals, the more data we have, the happier we are,” said Kristen Luidhardt, a Republican consultant in Indianapolis. “We’d love to know absolutely everything about you.” […]
One technique matches voters’ names and addresses to their online behavior. RapLeaf Inc. and AOL Inc. offer services to show ads targeted to specific groups of voters. Consultants from both parties have used RapLeaf technology in about 10 races this year nationwide. […]
Privacy advocates argue that connecting people’s Web-browsing habits with information tied to their names is too intrusive. […]
One company behind the RNC’s technology is Eloqua Ltd., Vienna, Va. Chief Executive Joe Payne says Eloqua analyzes people’s online reading habits to understand a user’s “digital body language.” When the user enters a name or home address on a website using Eloqua technology, this previously anonymous information can be matched to his name.
An official of the Democratic National Committee says the Democrats also merge online and offline data for “customizing, localizing and personalizing” voter interactions.