A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers
- The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer.
- As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal's test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles.
- But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.
- The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.'s Dictionary.com. A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal's test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users.
- The information that companies gather is anonymous, in the sense that Internet users are identified by a number assigned to their computer, not by a specific person's name. The company, for instance, says it doesn't know the name of users such as Ms. Jones—only their behavior and attributes, identified by code number.
And the industry says the data are used harmlessly.
What do you think?