When 'anonymous' data isn't anonymous

What do Web trackers do when the 'anonymous' data they gather reveals your identity? They redefine the word "anonymous."


Who is that masked man?

flickr/Michael Bentley

Last Saturday the Wall Street Journal published another great article in its “What They Know” series on Internet privacy, which has been nominated for a Pulitzer (and rightly so). This one was about what both click and brick retailers know about you when you go shopping. If you care a whit about your personal privacy, you should read this story.

It starts with a guy named Andy Morar in Atlanta. He’s shopping for a high-end SUV online, so he decides to send his name and contact information to a local BMW dealership. Unbeknownst to Morar, however, his data is also shared with a Web tracking company called Dataium LLC, which sends the dealership a tidy summary of where else Morar has been shopping for a car on the Web.

That’s not the worst part. Here’s what Dataium told WSJ reporters Jennier Valentino-Devries and Jeremy Singer-Vine when they called.

Dataium said that shoppers' Web browsing is still anonymous, even though it can be tied to their names. The reason: Dataium does not give dealers click-by-click details of people's Web surfing history but rather an analysis of their interests.

FYI for Dataium co-founders Eric Brown and Jason Ezell, here’s how Merriam Webster defines anonymous:

1: of unknown authorship or origin <an anonymous tip>

2: not named or identified <an anonymous author> <they wish to remain anonymous>

3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability <the anonymous faces in the crowd> <the gray anonymous streets — William Styron>

See anything in there about anonymity = knowing someone’s name? Me neither. This truly astounding quote tells you everything you need to know about why the online tracking industry desperately needs intervention from a higher power.

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