Researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley have discovered that many major websites are using advanced new tracking methods so stealthy that they are nearly impossible for most computers to detect—but no one is willing to own up to them, reports The Wall Street Journal.
A new batch of “supercookies”—cookies that are so powerful they can re-create users’ profiles even after they’ve deleted regular cookies—were found on websites like MSN.com and Hulu.
After being contacted by the researchers, many websites using these supercookies claimed that they were unaware of them and said that they had been deleted. Mike Hintze, a lawyer for Microsoft, said that when the supercookie “was brought to our attention, we were alarmed. It was inconsistent with our intent and our policy.” Hulu released a statement saying it “acted immediately to investigate and address.”
But it’s not just supercookies that are tracking Internet users’ every move. One Stanford researcher, Jonathan Mayer, found that two different websites—Time Warner’s Flixster.com and Charter Communications' Charter.net—have been employing “history stealing,” a tracking method that allows marketers to look into peoples’ Web histories to see if they have visited any of more than 1,500 websites, some of them with sensitive subjects like fertility problems or credit repair. While other sites have employed history in recent years, it’s rarely been at a scale as large as Mayer found.
Mayer discovered that the history stealing on Flixster and Charter was being done by Epic Media Group, a New York digital-marketing company. Both sites denied having a direct relationship with Epic, however, saying that the tracking service was installed by advertisers. They also claimed that they were unaware of the history tracking and said that they have removed all of Epic’s technology from their sites.
Epic CEO Don Mathis also refused to take full responsibility. He said that his company was inadvertently using the tracking method and has since stopped, adding that the company was only using it to verify data purchased from other vendors.