Opinion | This Article Is Spying on You

The press has performed admirably in reporting on privacy violations by the National Security Agency and major internet companies. But news sites often expose users to the same surveillance programs and data-collection companies they criticize. Even articles that explained how the N.S.A. was using Google cookies to “pinpoint targets for hacking” often included the exact same cookies revealed by Edward Snowden. Likewise, articles about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica often include Facebook tracking code, allowing Facebook to keep tabs on what people read.

Surveillance on news websites is particularly problematic because the news you consume may reveal your political leanings or health interests — information that is not just exploited by corporations to sell you things, but could also be abused by governments. And because news organizations benefit from the surveillance economy by running advertisements targeted to reader interests, they may be less likely to report on their own tracking practices.

A recent article by The Times headlined “Can an Abortion Affect Your Fertility?” provides a useful example of how privacy is infringed on by news websites. I used my software platform, webXray, to load the article page 10 times in a row with the Chrome browser. During each page load the software kept track of data transfers made to outside companies and generated a summary of what happened.The analysis revealed that people reading the article online may be tracked by nearly 50 different companies, one of which is Oracle BlueKai. According to its website, BlueKai helps companies“personalize” marketing campaigns by ingesting “massive amounts” of data. The BlueKai privacy policy specifies users are categorized into “health and wellness interest segments” which include open-ended categories such as “health conditions” and “medical terms.” Given that numerous companies may track users, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

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