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."


For years, online advertisers have been playing an Orwellian game with the language, attempting to redefine terms like “opt in” and “do not track.” Now they’re trying to change what “anonymous” means. And Dataium is hardly alone.

The WSJ tested 50 top sites to see what kinds of information they shared with third party tracking, analytics, and advertising companies. A dozen of them shared email addresses or full names (including, interestingly enough, the Journal’s own site.) The journal also looked at 20 sites that deal with sensitive information – like dating services, medical information, or sites catering to kids. Nine of them shared identifying information with third parties.

For an interactive (and easier to read) version of this chart, click here.

The problem? Per the Journal:

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.

It's so easy to share such information that many of the sites the Journal contacted said they were doing so accidentally. The problem is easy to solve, but it has persisted for years.

Naturally, the sites that share this information invariably rely on one of two defenses: The information is gathered anonymously (even when it isn’t) or the sites that receive this information don’t use the non-anonymous data.

Or, like Dataium, they just redefine the word “anonymous.”

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