Feeds

Hundreds of websites share usernames sans permission

Photobucket, Wall Street Journal, Home Depot take liberties with your personal info

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

Home Depot, The Wall Street Journal, Photobucket, and hundreds of other websites share visitor's names, usernames, or other personal information with advertisers or other third parties, often without disclosing the practice in privacy policies, academic researchers said.

Sixty-one percent of websites tested by researchers from Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society leaked the personal information, sometimes to dozens of third-party partners. Home Depot, for example, disclosed the first names and email addresses of visitors who clicked on an ad to 13 companies. The Wall Street Journal divulged to seven of its partners the email address of users who enter the wrong password. And Photobucket handed over the usernames of those who use the site to share images with their friends.

The report comes as US officials have proposed a mandatory Do Not Track option for all websites. Some operators have argued such measures are unnecessary because their systems for tracking visitors' browsing histories aren't linked to a user's specific identity.

In the report, Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford graduate student who led the study, argued against the claim that the online tracking is anonymous. A username alone, he explained, is often more than adequate to identify the owner, and when it's combined with other information, such as his geographic location or first name, even widely used usernames can be uniquely assigned to an individual.

“We believe there is now overwhelming evidence that third-party web tracking is not anonymous,” he wrote. “It is a legitimate policy question whether, on balance, Do Not Track should be enforced by law. But the difficult weighing of competing privacy risks and economics can't be short-circuited by claims of anonymity.”

The report studied websites included in the Quantcast top 250 that offered user signups, didn't require a purchase or other qualification to create a username, and didn't include so many features as to be impractical for study. Of the 185 sites that met the three criteria, 113 of them included usernames and other identifiers in the URLs they shared with advertisers and analytics partners. The five biggest recipients were ComScore, Google Analytics, Google's DoubleClick, Quantcast, and Facebook.

The report cited privacy policies of many of the websites that appeared to make no mention of the practice. The WSJ's, for example, says: “We will not sell, rent, or share your personal information with these third parties for such parties' own marketing purposes.” In its own policy, Home Depot says it “will not trade, rent or sell your personal information, without your prior consent.”

The Stanford researchers have previously documented a variety of attempts by websites and marketers to track users's browsing habits, sometimes when they've taken pains to remain anonymous.

In August, they revealed JavaScript hosted on MSN.com and three other Microsoft websites that secretly logged visitors' browsing histories across multiple web properties, even when the users deleted browser cookies to elude tracking. The researchers also exposed a marketer that helped websites deliver targeted ads by exploiting a decade-old browser flaw that leaks the history of websites that users visit. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SMASH the Bash bug! Apple and Red Hat scramble for patch batches
'Applying multiple security updates is extremely difficult'
Shellshock: 'Larger scale attack' on its way, warn securo-bods
Not just web servers under threat - though TENS of THOUSANDS have been hit
Apple's new iPhone 6 vulnerable to last year's TouchID fingerprint hack
But unsophisticated thieves need not attempt this trick
Oracle SHELLSHOCKER - data titan lists unpatchables
Database kingpin lists 32 products that can't be patched (yet) as GNU fixes second vuln
Who.is does the Harlem Shake
Blame it on LOLing XSS terroristas
Researchers tell black hats: 'YOU'RE SOOO PREDICTABLE'
Want to register that domain? We're way ahead of you.
Stunned by Shellshock Bash bug? Patch all you can – or be punished
UK data watchdog rolls up its sleeves, polishes truncheon
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.