Privacy in America continues to erode online, report says

The Wall Street Journal's report says companies are increasingly connecting consumers' real-life identities to where they hang out online.

Privacy in America is being transformed in many ways -- the intersection of your personal identity and your online activity is one example.

The Wall Street Journal has been looking at this issue, and in its latest reportit says companies are increasingly connecting consumers' real-life identities to where they hang out online.

The newspaper cited a Georgia man shopping for a car who input his name and contact information on a car dealer's website.

While this data went to the dealership, it also was transmitted to a company that tracks the online movements of people shopping for vehicles. The company then was able to pair the man's personal information with an analysis of the automotive websites he had visited and hand over all of this data to the car dealer, which could use it to more easily land a sale.

One company that can pull off this kind of data mining is Dataium LLC, based in Nashville, Tenn.

Describing itself as "the world's largest compiler of online automotive shopping behavior," Dataium says every month it "observes over 20 million automotive shoppers across over 10,000 automotive websites and then aggregates, indexes and summarizes this data into intelligent insights."

The Journal says "tracking companies are redefining what it means to be anonymous."

The Findings

In fact, this kind of tracking activity is far from isolated. As evidence, here are other findings from the WSJ's investigation:

-- After looking at nearly 1,000 top websites, it found that 75 percent now include code from social networks -- such as "Like" or "Tweet" buttons -- that can match people's identities with their Web-browsing activities like never before, even recording a user's arrival on a page if a button is never clicked.

-- The newspaper also studied what happens when people logged in to about 70 popular websites and determined that in over 25 percent of the time the sites passed a user's personal details -- including self-reported sexual orientation and drug-use habits -- to third-party companies.

-- Another survey of 50 popular websites and the Journal's own site found that 12 sent to third parties what might be personally identifying information.

-- It also tested 20 sites that handle sensitive information -- such as sites that involve personal relationships, medical information and children -- and found nine of them transferred potentially identifying data to a third party.

There is plenty of other proof privacy is eroding in America.

The Landscape

Facebook, long a lightning rod for criticism for lax privacy controls, was recently hammered for a loophole that lets a person be added to a discussion group by a friend without the user's permission.

At the heart of the controversy were two gay college students who reportedly had their sexual preference inadvertently exposed to hundreds of Facebook friends.

In addition, this summer a creepy issue bubbled up in Congress involving the dramatic uptick in the number of requests to cellular carriers from law enforcement for people's cell phone records.

The number, announced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), is incredible: In the last year federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have made 1.3 million demands for user cell phone data such as text messages, caller locations, and wiretaps.

But even more troubling is the fact that cellular carriers actually make a lot of money handing over their users' private information.

According to a letter drafted by Markey and other Democrats, Verizon charges from $50 to retrieve up to five days of stored text message content to $1,825 for multiple wiretap switches. And AT&T received more than $8.2 million in 2011 for collecting and turning over to law enforcement phone usage information.

And last month, a U.S. judge accepted the terms of a settlement deal between Google and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, in which Google will pay a $22.5 million fine for circumventing privacy protections in Apple's Safari browser.

Under that agreement, Google was barred from misrepresenting its privacy practices in the future and required to implement a program to ensure it stuck to its promises. It was not required to admit to any wrongdoing.

Just over a year later, the FTC sued Google again, this time for circumventing privacy protections in Apple's Safari browser to place tracking cookies on user's computers. It did this despite ensuring users that they did not need to take any actions to block its cookies in Safari.

Tags privacywall street journalThe Wall Street JournalWeb & communication software

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