Online Tracking Gets Third Degree, But What About Offline?


dogs_smallADOTAS – As I was reading a Wall Street Journal profile of RapLeaf CEO Auren Hoffman, a banner ad popped up on the right side of the screen: below on image of baby feet perched atop a parent’s was the tagline, “What does trust look like?”

I couldn’t help but snort — obviously trust is not supposed to look like the tall, thin Hoffman, smiling awkwardly in a photo to the left.

In the past week, starting with an article that screamed about a Facebook “privacy breach,” WSJ has piled on online data tracker RapLeaf, culminating with a Monday morning print story titled “Online Tracking Company RapLeaf Profiles Users by Name.” Even better, on the Web page there’s a picture of a smiling elderly white woman (with glasses just like your grandma’s) innocently peering out the window — RapLeaf sold this woman’s anonymous information (or rather her interests) to political campaigns.

They’re targeting Granny! First they make her take her shoes off at the airport and now this…

Of course Granny is getting tracked. Political tracking companies have been doing the same stuff for years and older voters are a great target because they’re the most likely to vote as well as donate to campaigns.

But RapLeaf’s data tracking model stands out from other online targeting firms — instead of employing sorting engines that anonymously categorize IP addresses into audience buckets, categorized via social assumptions (“Girls like shoes, boys like sports!”), RapLeaf is actually building profiles with user names and email addresses. These profiles are buoyed with third-party data (some online, some offline) and then sold to advertisers with all personal identification information stripped out.

In other words, the firm is doing something similar to what offline tracking companies have been doing forever — except when offline trackers do it, it’s called lead generation and that industry is government-regulated. Oh, and they sell names, addresses, household income….

There hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about how offline tracking companies work and names like Catalina Marketing and Acxiom (which both have extensive digital operations) have barely been mentioned in WSJ’s “What They Know” series. Acxiom makes the list of “scrapers” in a story listing how to opt-out of data collection programs. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers an even-more comprehensive list of how to opt out of online and offline tracking.

RapLeaf has gone a step further than offline targeters by adding public data from the social graph. By no means is RapLeaf an innocent party: it was selling Facebook user IDs (unwittingly, the company claims) that could be linked to real names and WSJ noticed some data collection going on that contradicted the companies stated policies (which RapLeaf quickly removed — doh!).

I’ve seen many people suggest that the overhype of this latest Facebook privacy snafu is a good thing, and to some extent I’m in agreement. I hope this is a gateway to a bigger discussion about privacy (online and offline) and tracking. However, the Journal’s hysterical coverage makes it look like one or two companies are simply going to be burned at the stake. In RapLeaf I see merely a whipping boy for WSJ to rack up paper sales and page hits as it fuels paranoia through unbalanced journalism.

It’s depressing that the public is so desensitized that it needs to be repeatedly battered with sensational shrieking before actually giving a second’s thought to an issue. (Of course it’s the media that’s made us this way with its nonstop hollering.) Which brings us to some sickening irony: the profile piece I mentioned at the top of this story notes that CEO Hoffman writes a great deal about online privacy through the RapLeaf blog as well as his personal blog. He recently made a persuasive argument against IP tracking in AdExchanger.

So an industry veteran who has tried to spark discussion about data privacy instead has his company come under attack via near-hysterical coverage by a print-based news outlet — one that used Hoffman as a source in seven articles over the last 12 years.

Coincidentally, last week Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill told an industry crowd that the agency’s upcoming report on behavioral targeting will not recommend legislation or added regulation in favor of industry self-regulation. It appears the FTC will demand a widely implemented tracking opt-out system that meets the agency’s standards.

RapLeaf’s Hoffman, however, has previously come out in favor of government regulation. There’s been so little discussion of offline tracking around the WSJ’s “What They Know” hoopla because it’s regulated. The Web remains a (cliche alert) Wild West, and I’m not convinced an industry-appointed sheriff is going to ease consumer concerns.


  1. Julie Brill, the Federal Trade Commission, should do something simple. Go to the publishers (websites) and tell them all use Facebook Connect!!! This way all users will have a simple single-access-point in form of Facebook account page to control their own user data privacy level. Through the Facebook account page the user would be able to opt-out or change its privacy setting for each Facebook Connect site.

    More importantly, the publishers will gain access to valuable Facebook user data. After all, when using Facebook Connect, each user authorizes the permission he gives to each site so it’s all legit.

    However the publishers would need to ensure that no data is passed to 3rd parties. The publishers would need to optimize the targeting of ads/offers to each user by themselves.

    If you think about it the publishers already have started to take control and stop selling their traffic to ad-networks. Look at Nick Johnson who says and I quote “There are cottage industries being built off publishers (…) You’re going to see a lot of publishers taking their data back.”

    The only missing link is the technological part to enable the publishers do the optimization IN-HOUSE while using Facebook user data (Facebook Connect) without any privacy breaches.

    I’m for one come to offer such solution through Bees and Pollen.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here