I’m very proud of the Know Privacy team, a group of three students who performed a broad analysis of online privacy issues for their master’s project at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. The study is featured today on the New York Times Bits blog. Several findings are notable:
They found: “From our analysis, it is apparent that Google is the dominant player in the tracking market. Among the top 100 websites this project focused on, Google Analytics appeared on 81 of them. When combined with the other trackers it operates, such as DoubleClick, Google can track 92 of the top 100 websites. Furthermore, a Google-operated tracker appeared on 348,059 of 393,829 distinct domains tracked by Ghostery in March 2009 (over 88%).”
Also, under the Bush administration, the Federal Trade Commission has framed privacy as one of “consumer harms.” That is, they claimed (without any evidence), that consumers really cared about privacy issues that caused harm. However, in an analysis of the FTC’s own consumer complaint data, the group found that American consumers were most frequently complaining about a lack of control over personal information.
The team investigated web site affiliate sharing too. The public policy debate around information sale generally is limited to third parties. There is a growing consensus, driven by international privacy rules, that companies should not sell personal information to third parties without affirmative consent from consumers. However, affiliate networks are very large, and US privacy law generally does not allow consumers to restrict the flow of personal information among affiliated companies. In looking at the top websites, the average had almost 300 affiliates. Newscorp, the company that owns myspace, has 1,500 affiliates. Identifying affiliates was very difficult: “We sent each company a request via email or an online web form for a list of each affiliate they may share data with. We received 14 replies, but none included the lists we asked for.”