Websites Use Powerful New Tools to Track Your Use

Thursday, 18 Aug 2011 01:39 PM

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Websites have begun to use powerful new methods to track users’ online activities. The new techniques, which have been used by such sites as MSN.com and Hulu.com, are almost impossible to detect, The Wall Street Journal reports.

COMPUter, cookies, supercookies,Unlike “cookies” that can be deleted, the new “supercookies” are able to re-create profiles after being deleted, researchers at Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley report. Although the methods are legal, they have been sharply criticized by privacy advocates who object not just to the collecting of the information but also its sale. Bills have been introduced on the matter in Congress, the paper reported.

Nonetheless, some of the users of the supercookies stopped when researchers contacted them. Mike Hintze, the associate general counsel at MSN parent company Microsoft Corp., told the Journal that, when the supercookie "was brought to our attention, we were alarmed. It was inconsistent with our intent and our policy." Microsoft created the computer code, the paper reported. Hulu said it is investigating the matter.

Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer identified a "history stealing" tracking service on Flixster.com, a social-networking service for movie fans, and on Charter Communications Inc.'s Charter.net. Mayer said the tracking on the site was done by Epic Media Group, a New York digital-marketing company.

Advertisers installed the service, and Charter and Flixster said they don’t have a direct relationship with Epic, according to the Journal.

Epic chief executive Don Mathis said his company used the technology inadvertently and no longer is doing so. The two companies, Flixster and Charter, said they were unaware of Epic's activities and have removed all Epic technology, the Journal reported.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found supercookie techniques used by dozens of sites including Hulu, which was storing tracking coding in files related to Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software, which enables many of the videos. Hulu, owned by NBC Universal, Walt Disney Co., and News Corp., owner of The Wall Street Journal, was one of a number of companies that entered into a $2.4 million class-action settlement last year related to the use of cookies, according to the Journal.

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