Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” Series

Following my work on KnowPrivacy, I was approached by Julia Angwin to conduct similar research for a Wall Street Journal article she was writing called “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”  For this article, I measured the prevalence of online tracking and helped enumerate the various privacy concerns involved with online tracking. After the success of the first piece, this turned into two-year series investigating how individuals are tracked online and offline which was a finalist for 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and won the 2010 Loeb Award for “Online Enterprise”.

I was the primary technical consultant for many of the stories in the series, most notably On the Web, Children Face Intensive Tracking, Google’s iPhone Tracking, and U.S. Firm Acknowledges Syria Uses Its Gear to Block Web. The technical research for these pieces involved building software to crawl the web for tracking technologies and recording their reach and frequency.I worked with a other researchers, including David Campbell of Electric Alchemy to develop a then-cutting-edge method for identifying privacy leakage on mobile devices. Most recently, I assisted the WTK team in reverse engineering the technology certain companies use to offer different prices to consumers online.

Looking under the hood of the tracking technology and practices used by companies is critical to examining the role this data plays in our economy and our private lives.  Technical research like this can give consumers the knowledge and tools to understand how data about them is mined, transmitted, and monetized.  Investigative journalism will increasingly require this kind of geek-intensive research.

Some examples from the series:

circle The web’s new goldmine: your secrets: The Wall Street Journal‘s What They Know series began in July 2010 with this article, which outlined the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on internet users. It revealed that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry. Read more (behind paywall) or view interactive graphic

Tracking children online: In 2010, the Wall Street Journal team examined 50 sites popular with U.S. teens and children to see what tracking tools they installed on a test computer. As a group, the sites placed 4,123 “cookies,” “beacons” and other pieces of tracking technology. We found that marketers are spying more on young Internet users than on their parents, building detailed profiles of their activities and interests. Read more or view interactive graphic.
tracking safari How Google tracked Safari users: In 2012, I found that Google and other advertising companies had been following iPhone and Apple users as they browse the Web, even though Apple’s Safari Web browser is set to block such tracking by default. Google was using cookies to trick the Safari web browser into letting them monitor many users.  Read more or view interactive graphic.
staples Websites Vary Prices, Deals Based on Users’ Information: In December 2012, the Journal identified several companies that were consistently adjusting prices and displaying different product offers based on a range of characteristics that could be discovered about the user. Read more or view interactive graphic.
they know what you're shopping for They Know What You’re Shopping For: Companies are increasingly tying people’s real-life identities to their online browsing habits.  For this Journal story, I found that Dataium was collecting the email addresses of individuals browsing auto websites and using that to profile people when they walked into dealerships to shop for a car. Read more about the technical details or view interactive graphic.
WSJappswatchingyou1211 Your Apps are Watching You Few devices know more personal details about people than the smartphones in their pockets: phone numbers, current location, often the owner’s real name—even a unique ID number that can never be changed or turned off. These phones don’t keep secrets. They are sharing this personal data widely and regularly, as a Wall Street Journal investigation found. An examination of 101 popular smartphone apps —games and other software applications for iPhone and Android phones—showed that 56 transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent. Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders. Read more or view interactive graphic.
WSJapplegooglemobilelocation Apple, Google Collect User Data Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, respectively, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal—intensifying concerns over privacy and the widening trade in personal data. Read more