Sex, drugs, and Internet advertising

Sites like YouTube, Twitter, and OkCupid are sharing your username with Web advertisers -- and often a lot more. So much for 'anonymous' tracking. UPDATE: Lotame and BlueKai respond.

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Do you love sex, drugs, booze, and cigarettes? I hope you also love sharing that information with Internet advertising networks.

Stanford grad student Jonathan R. Mayer presented a report earlier this week on how Web sites share information with ad networks that track their visitors. Nearly half of the 185 biggest sites share usernames and other information that can be used to identify you across the Web – despite having privacy policies claiming that they don’t.

It’s called “data leakage,” and it happens when a site puts your username and/or other information into the URL that gets sent back to its advertisers. But some sites leak a lot more than others.

Mayer notes that popular dating site OkCupid leaks information about its members’ drinking habits, drug use, nicotine addiction, and ethnicity in the URLs it sends to ad network Lotame (pronounced "lah-ta-me" "low-da-me"). It also leaks information about your kids, pets, location, income, and more to both Lotame and ad network BlueKai.

Your OkCupid mates aren't the only ones who know what a druggie you areYour OkCupid mates aren't the only ones who know what a druggie you are

There’s apparently a lot of you in Lotame. But OkCupid cops to none of this in its privacy policy, which reads:

We may allow third-parties, including our authorized service providers, IAC companies, advertising companies and ad networks, to display advertisements on our site. These companies may use tracking technologies, such as cookies, to collect information about users who view or interact with their advertisements. Our website does not provide any personal information to these third parties. [emphasis mine]

Interestingly, OkCupid was acquired eight months ago by Interactive Corp (IAC), parent company to Match.com, CollegeHumor.com, and three dozen other sites. IAC is not exactly a poster child for enlightened privacy policies, reserving the right to share your personal information with any of the companies in its network.

At the time I spoke with OkCupid CEO Sam Yagan to ask him how the acquisition would affect the extremely personal data his subscribers shared on the site. It was a pretty heated discussion, and Yagan swore OkCupid would continue to respect its members’ privacy after the acquisition. Back then he told me:

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