Law­mak­ers use web­site snoop­ing tools de­spite preach­ing pri­vacy

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY TIM JOHN­SON tjohn­[email protected]­ Tim John­son, 202 383- 6028, @timjohn­son4

Dozens of law­mak­ers in Congress are us­ing track­ing tools on their cam­paign web­sites to col­lect per­sonal in­for­ma­tion about on­line vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing some leg­is­la­tors who have lam­basted Face­book and other so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies for em­ploy­ing sim­i­lar meth­ods.

The rev­e­la­tions un­der­score how crit­i­cal in­ter­net track­ing has be­come to politi­cians who seek in­for­ma­tion on vot­ers in their dis­tricts to tar­get them with ad­ver­tis­ing.

One sen­a­tor re­moved track­ing tools from his cam­paign web­site af­ter his of­fice was con­tacted by McClatchy, and an­other law­maker pledged to put up a pri­vacy alert about the track­ing.

Many oth­ers did not re­spond to queries about their use. Among them was Rep. Paul Tonko, a Demo­crat from up­state New York who joined other leg­is­la­tors in scold­ing Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg at a House hear­ing April 11.

“Users trusted Face­book to pri­or­i­tize user pri­vacy and data se­cu­rity, and that trust has been shat­tered,” Tonko told Zucker­berg.

Yet Tonko has been less than trans­par­ent with peo­ple vis­it­ing his re-elec­tion web­site. The site of­fers no warn­ing that it em­ploys a track­ing tool that gath­ers in­for­ma­tion on those who land there.

In dozens of cases dur­ing the re­cently con­cluded midterm elec­tions, can­di­dates used a track­ing tool, two of them, or even three, on their cam­paign web­sites with­out in­form­ing users. Such embed­ded tools can col­lect gran­u­lar data – such as age, gen­der, lo­ca­tion and even specifics about the com­puter the vis­i­tor is us­ing, and sites he or she has vis­ited – that is in­creas­ingly use­ful for cam­paign ad­ver­tis­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing pos­si­ble sup­port­ers and even shap­ing po­lit­i­cal plat­forms.

Tonko was not the only law­maker of­fer­ing tough ques­tions to Zucker­berg in pub­lic while em­ploy­ing a dif­fer­ent strat­egy in pri­vate. Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors alike pelted Zucker­berg with crit­i­cism, only to use cam­paign web­sites that failed to alert vis­i­tors that their sites con­tained tools that snoop.

Some ex­perts say track­ing tools can gather such valu­able data that politi­cians may find them­selves squirm­ing to write pri­vacy reg­u­la­tions for big tech com­pa­nies with­out harm­ing their own fu­ture re­elec­tion bids, which in­creas­ingly rely on deep voter pro­files com­piled through track­ing for pin­point ad­ver­tis­ing on so­cial me­dia, par­tic­u­larly Face­book.

In many cases, when con­tacted by a re­porter, law­mak­ers de­clined to re­spond to queries about their use of track­ing tools. In two cases, leg­is­la­tors made changes – or pledged to do so – to their web­sites.

That was the case with Rep. Bill Flores, a Repub­li­can from a Texas district sur­round­ing Waco, who was crit­i­cal of Zucker­berg at the April 11 hear­ing be­fore the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee. Flores told Zucker­berg that any data Face­book re­leases to third par­ties “should be based on the ab­so­lute trans­parency as to what data will be used.”

On the Flores cam­paign web­site, billflo­, Google An­a­lyt­ics and Face­book Pixel Code, pow­er­ful tools to gather data on vis­i­tors, are embed­ded in the site’s source code, hid­den from all but the most tech savvy users.

Flores’ cam­paign said the ba­sic web­site de­sign was years old and that the cam­paign team “was not aware of the in­clu­sion” of de­sign fea­tures such as Google An­a­lyt­ics.

“Th­ese tools were not used by the cam­paign to track or tar­get ad­ver­tis­ing. Now that we are aware that the ven­dor in­cluded th­ese tools in our web­site de­sign, we will soon add a pri­vacy state­ment,” the cam­paign said in a state­ment.

Ex­perts said politi­cians, some of whom dis­played only cur­sory knowl­edge of tech is­sues dur­ing Zucker­berg’s ap­pear­ance on Capi­tol Hill, may gen­uinely ig­nore how their web­sites run.

“Do we be­lieve that politi­cians them­selves are go­ing in and em­bed­ding th­ese an­a­lytic scripts in their web­sites? No. Is it some­one on their staff? Yes,” said Chandler Givens, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Track­OFF, a Bal­ti­more com­pany that of­fers tools to pro­tect peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties. “It’s a de­lib­er­ate ac­tion on their part.”

Givens’ com­pany de­cided to look into web­site track­ing used by can­di­dates in the run-up to the Nov. 6 midterm elec­tions.

“Watch­ing the hear­ing with Zucker­berg, we started think­ing, you know, it’s prob­a­bly the case that a lot of th­ese folks are us­ing the same type of tech­nol­ogy that they are lam­bast­ing Mark Zucker­berg for,” Givens said.

As part of a sur­vey in Septem­ber, the com­pany picked 100 ran­dom cam­paigns, some of in­cum­bent sen­a­tors and mem­bers of Congress, oth­ers of chal­lengers, from 35 states. They found that 95 of the cam­paigns used track­ing tech­nol­ogy on their web­sites. Of those, 49 web­sites did not state that they were col­lect­ing data or say for what pur­pose it would be used. Such per­func­tory state­ments are usu­ally con­tained in a “pri­vacy pol­icy” link on web­sites.

The vast ma­jor­ity

(84 per­cent) of sites used Google An­a­lyt­ics, a free tool that tracks ac­tiv­i­ties of users and can sort them by age, lo­ca­tion, gen­der and in­ter­ests. About half that num­ber (42 per­cent) used Face­book’s track­ing tech­nol­ogy.

A hand­ful used less well-known but pow­er­ful track­ing tools, in­clud­ing ones by Ad­dThis and Me­di­aMath (math­tag), that of­fer a de­tailed anal­y­sis of a web­site’s vis­i­tors. Track­OFF found at least five politi­cians or in­cum­bents who used a com­bi­na­tion of three track­ing tools.

Givens said the less widely known tools of­fer politi­cians deeper in­sights when the data is wed­ded with off­line data­bases con­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion on con­sumer pur­chases and other ac­tiv­i­ties.

“That is some­thing that would be jar­ring to the av­er­age reader to know that if you’re buy­ing some­thing at the lo­cal phar­macy there’s high prob­a­bil­ity that that in­for­ma­tion is be­ing pack­aged up, shared and sold to data bro­kers. That in­for­ma­tion is then con­nected up with your on­line brows­ing habits to form a pro­file of you which can be used to tar­get you in po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. … That’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing now,” Givens said.

As con­sumers grow warier of track­ing, such tools have evolved, said Yinzhi Cao, a com­puter sci­en­tist and pri­vacy ex­pert at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in Bal­ti­more.

The early days of track­ing saw wide­spread use of com­puter “cook­ies,” or pack­ets of data that keep records of a user’s vis­its to a web­site and al­low them not to need to log in again re­peat­edly. As some users deleted cook­ies, de­vel­op­ers ush­ered in a gen­er­a­tion of “su­per cook­ies,” which can­not be deleted, and uniquely iden­tify the de­vice a user is on.

Per­haps more per­ni­cious, the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of track­ing tools em­ploy dig­i­tal fin­ger­print­ing, which may in­clude a light­ning scan of fac­tors like the fonts and plug-ins in­stalled on a de­vice and the way in which it ren­ders an im­age, all brought to­gether to iden­tify the de­vice, and even the user.

“Some of the track­ing com­pa­nies … have be­come sneakier. That’s why they use ad­vanced tools to track you even if you clear your browser cook­ies,” Cao said.

One sen­a­tor who main­tains an ac­tive cam­paign web­site, Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal, a Con­necti­cut Demo­crat, im­me­di­ately re­moved the Google and Face­book track­ing tools from the site when a re­porter con­tacted his of­fice. Blu­men­thal doesn’t face re-elec­tion un­til 2022.

“Like mil­lions of other con­sumers, we rely on Face­book and Google’s ser­vices and prod­ucts on a daily ba­sis and have placed trust in how they han­dle con­sumer data – a trust that as we have learned over the past year, th­ese com­pa­nies have re­peat­edly be­trayed,” Blu­men­thal said.

“While I have taken steps to re­move Google and Face­book from my web­site, such com­pa­nies have deeply embed­ded them­selves across the in­ter­net. Pro­tect­ing pri­vacy should not be so dif­fi­cult, and Congress needs to set the stan­dard.”

Many other leg­is­la­tors and can­di­dates did not re­spond to re­peated phone and email mes­sages for com­ment, in­clud­ing Rep. Tonko and Demo­cratic Rep. Deb­bie Din­gell of Michi­gan, both of whom were highly crit­i­cal of Zucker­berg at the April hear­ing yet use track­ing tools.

Sen­a­tor-elect Mike Braun of In­di­ana, a Repub­li­can, who uses three track­ing tools on his cam­paign web­site, did not re­spond to re­peated emails to his of­fice. Nor did Rep. John Faso, a New York Repub­li­can, who also uses three track­ing tools. A spokesman for Sean Cas­ten, a bio­chem­i­cal en­gi­neer who won a House seat from Illi­nois 6th district, and uses three track­ing tools on his site (al­though with a pri­vacy warn­ing), said he is “fo­cused on his tran­si­tion” and would not of­fer com­ment.

Some ex­perts say data gath­er­ing by politi­cians will only in­crease.


U.S. Reps. John Faso, R-New York, and Deb­bie Din­gell, D-Michi­gan, are among dozens of law­mak­ers who use track­ing tools on their cam­paign web­sites.

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