Brills Content, July 2000
DoubleClick watches Porn/Medical Sites
By Mark Boal
We all know by now that when we log on to the Internet and surf the World
Wide Web from the privacy of our homes, such privacy is largely an
illusion. After all, websites keep track of their visitors, bulletin-board
postings are archived, and even e-mail is not safe from prying eyes.
But the state of privacy on the Web may be worse than you imagine. A new
generation of technology is making it easier for marketers and Web hosts to
track us without our knowledge. Moreover, these tracking devices are
showing up in places where many people may be most sensitive about guarding
their privacy: pornography and medical sites.
I realized how hard it is to keep up with the rapidly changing online
privacy terrain when I paid a visit recently to Richard Smith, an expert on
computer privacy who prides himself on uncovering Internet practices he
considers abusive. Turns out even Smith was surprised by what we would
Smith was tutoring me on what you might call online countersurveillance,
giving me a lesson in how to watch the watchers on the Web. We were in his
of ce overlooking downtown Boston. Our laptops were on. On screen, we were
looking at a popular porn site called iFriends. We looked at the coding
that creates the page, when suddenly a line jumped out at Smith:
WIDTH=1 HEIGHT=1 BORDER=0
"It s a Web bug!" he exclaimed. Web bugs are the latest innovation in the
art of monitoring people moving through websites. They are computer code,
nearly identical in structure to the code for a picture or a banner ad.
Except they are invisible, due to that last line: WIDTH=1 HEIGHT=1
BORDER=0. That describes an image one pixel wide and one pixel high, with
no border. (The period at the end of this sentence would be represented on
a typical screen as a four-pixel square.) A one-by-one pixel square can not
be seen by the naked eye.
Smith had found a Web bug, but what really struck him was that first line of
( C0VERTl -BTW, can you find the web bug on www.covertlinks.cjb.net?)
DoubleClick is an online advertising agency that buys and places banner-ad
space for its clients. But it adds another layer of service, too it keeps
track of who views and clicks on those banners, and now, with Web bugs, it
can track people on pages without banner ads. DoubleClick s pioneering role
on the Internet has earned it the adoration of Wall Street, but the enmity
of privacy advocates, who are concerned that the company is building a
mammoth database that pro les people s lives on the Web in elaborate detail.
"In general, DoubleClick s whole strategy of tracking Internet users
invades the expectation of privacy people have when they re browsing," says
Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the watchdog Electronic Privacy
Information Center. "But when you re talking about particularly sensitive
areas such as health or pornography sites, which are only accessed under
the assumption that the person s visit remains unknown, tracking is
especially objectionable. These are places where the preservation of
privacy is vital."
Indeed, DoubleClick s reach is so broad that even casual browsing in the
most sensitive corners of the Net leaves a data trail the company can
follow, as Smith and I discovered.
Head over to the search engine at the Internet portal Lycos, the
fth-most-popular destination on the Web in May, and type the word sex into
the query box. DoubleClick takes note. Or click on About.com, a site that
gathers many pages under one umbrella and is one of the Web s most popular
destinations, with about 4.4 million visitors in April. Thousands of sites
are listed under About.com s adult section, and DoubleClick has the ability
to monitor many of them.
Smith and I also discovered that DoubleClick operates Web bugs at
procrit.com, a site for the HIV-related drug Procrit, and that it monitors
mentalwellness.com, an online resource for schizophrenia. Both sites are
owned by Johnson & Johnson.
The question for privacy advocates is what does DoubleClick do with the
data it collects? Company of cials say emphatically that it won t link
information about an individual s website visits with his or her name. Yet
the sort of Web bug coding Smith found DoubleClick using on various porn
and health sites is ideally suited to linking a person s name to his or her
This use of Web bugs, also sometimes called transparent GIFs (for graphics
interchange format) seems to violate DoubleClick s own privacy pledge to be
"fully committed to offering online consumers notice about the collection
and use of personal information about them, and the choice not to
participate." (The italics are DoubleClick s.)
Jules Polonetsky, DoubleClick s chief privacy of cer and a former New York
"in no way" contradicted by DoubleClick s deployment of Web bugs, because
names are not linked to sensitive online activities such as health and porn
Polonetsky stresses that the company has "made a commitment that we won t
ever use sensitive information to target ads or to build a pro le,"
although he says that could change with the development of government
standards. In the meantime, he adds, it s the clients responsibility to
disclose DoubleClick s Web bugs. "All the sites we do business with," he
says, "we wish [them] to be as transparent as possible in explaining what
happens on their site."
However, none of the sites where we found Web bugs revealed that fact in
their privacy policies.
When asked about this, iFriends initially denied that DoubleClick had Web
bugs on the sensitive parts of the site. But when presented with a log le
showing that DoubleClick recorded a visit to a "girl-girl" fetish room,
labeled in the computer code as room "5," Allan Rogers, a company
spokesman, replied by e-mail, "While DoubleClick does indeed record, [it]
does not know that room 5 is equivalent to girls home alone." This
explanation comes down to saying that while DoubleClick collects the
information, it does not have the technical skill to understand it an
assertion that Smith and others find hard to believe.
The other sites where Smith and I found Web bugs also downplayed their
privacy implications. A Johnson & Johnson spokesman says the information
gathered by Web bugs is used in-house to help the company re ne and manage
its sites. Consumers have nothing to worry about because DoubleClick is
contractually prohibited from using the information for any other purpose,
says the spokesman, Josh McKeegan. "The contract that Doubleclick signed
with us specifically stipulates that they won t use it for any of the
purposes which have gotten them into trouble which is tying the aggregate
data to specific cookies. That is specifically banned within our contract,"
Similarly, John Caplan, general manager of About.com, acknowledges that
DoubleClick collects data on About.com users, but said "DoubleClick does
not have the right to use any data it has on About.com users in any way.
They serve our ads thats it."
But critics note that DoubleClick s deal with its clients could change and
it could acquire the right to disseminate data it currently collects.
Moreover, a subpoena in a divorce proceeding, a warrant from a law
enforcement agency, a malicious hacker, a mistake on DoubleClick s part to
name just a few scenarios could drag DoubleClick s les into public view.
And regardless of who uses the data under which circumstances, the practice
of covert data collection violates standards of online privacy endorsed by
the Federal Trade Commission and by the industry-supported watchdog group
TRUSTe. These guidelines specify that data-mining ought to occur only when
the user is fully informed, and individuals are given some control over the
information gathered about them.
One popular medical site, drkoop.com, took these concerns so seriously that
in March it severed a long-standing relationship with DoubleClick. "We had
a lot of concerns. There was also a perception problem," explains Laura
Hicks, a spokeswoman for drkoop.com. "So we made a decision...that for the
protection of our consumers, we would not use any third-party ad networks."
For many privacy advocates, the very existence of Web bugs and the data
collection they facilitate constitute an invasion of privacy, leaving aside
questions about how that information could be disseminated. Think of a
Peeping Tom who installs a video camera in a clothing-store dressing room.
Even if he never views the footage, the people captured on lm will feel
"It s unacceptable for DoubleClick to be monitoring people s movements
without their consent," says privacy advocate Jason Catlett, of the
Junkbusters Corp., a group that opposes the proliferation of commercial
messages. "If they tried this in the physical world it would be like having
men in white coats standing outside X-rated movie theaters taking down your
license plate number."
Catlett is particularly concerned about the lack of disclosure at porn
sites, but a lawsuit led against DoubleClick in California alleges that the
rm s deployment of Web bugs at a great many sites is a violation of
consumer-protection statutes. The class-action suit, led in January by San
Rafael, California, lawyer Ira Rothken, seeks an injunction to force
DoubleClick to stop data mining via Web bugs and to give people a chance to
see their dossiers.
"If DoubleClick doesn t change their strategy of attempting to tie name and
address information with private click stream data...it will have a
chilling effect on all Web users no one will take risks in viewing
sensitive sites, and Web users First Amendment rights will be impaired,"
While the suit has garnered little press attention, it is being closely
watched by privacy groups. If the case gets to the discovery stage,
DoubleClick could be forced to reveal the business deals and strategy
behind its data warehousing, and the nature of the les it has gathered on
millions of Californians. That, in turn, could open the rm to a host of new
questions that the lawsuit raises. What is in the log les? How far back do
they go? Do they contain every website you or I have ever visited on the
DoubleClick network? When asked for a response to these questions, a
company spokeswoman repeated DoubleClick s assurances that it is
"absolutely committed to protecting the privacy of all Internet users."
Why would a Wall Street darling like DoubleClick get involved in monitoring
porn sites and health sites at the risk of alienating privacy advocates
even more? To answer that we need to rewind to 1996. That was when Kevin O
Connor founded the rm, with the idea of cashing in on the rush to all
things e. Back then, companies were curious about advertising online, but
few knew how to navigate the Web. It was unpredictable and chaotic, and
choosing the right advertising format was like throwing darts blindfolded.
DoubleClick simplifed the task by gathering hundreds of the most popular
sites in a network and then offering the ability to place banner ads across
all, or some, of the network. The Fortune 500 turned their ad accounts over to
DoubleClick, and soon it became the one-stop shop for online ads.
Today, DoubleClick s client roster reads like a who s who of corporate
America. The company places ads on websites for AT&T, CBS, Ford Motor
Company, Motorola, Inc., and hundreds of others. And its revenue is up
sharply; in the rst quarter of this year, it took in $110 million, a 179
percent increase over the same period last year, according to the company.
Every month, DoubleClick places 50 billion banner ads across its network,
which the company says covers about half of the Internet s total traf c. As
the company s annual report boasts, "Move your mouse over any ad on the
Web, and there s a good chance you ll see ad.doubleclick.net at the bottom
of your browser window. DoubleClick didn t create the ad, but we did place
And all of those ads are automatically monitored; DoubleClick gauges their
effectiveness by tracking the number of people who click on them versus the
number who view them. This so-called click-through rate is a metric only
the Internet can offer, and it is the argument for why online advertising
is more precise than TV, print, or radio advertising.
But click-through tracking yields another dividend, too. As DoubleClick
quickly discovered after it began marketing the service, click-through
technology opens the door to tracking individuals as they move from one
site to another. If you can track whether someone clicks on one ad, why not
track whether the same person clicks on any ad in a given network? Why not
see exactly what an individual does online, where she goes, what she buys?
It s no wonder that from the start, privacy advocates objected to such
tracking, but DoubleClick and other rms in the online marketing world
pressed ahead. To make the tracking work, DoubleClick used cookie les.
Cookies are random number strings like ngerprints that identify one
computer to another. As you visit a page with a DoubleClick ad, the company
places a cookie on your computer. After that, DoubleClick can track your
movements through its network even if you do not click on its banner ads.
And now, with Web bugs, DoubleClick can track you even when there are no
banner ads on a page. And if you make a purchase or fill out a questionnaire
on a site with a DoubleClick ad, the form will more than likely collect that
information from the Web bug and link it to your cookie.
Last year, DoubleClick tried to take the next step, and link its cookie files
with actual names and identities. It merged with the consumer-database form
Abacus Direct, and announced a new division designed to create elaborate
profiles of more than 90 percent of American households. The plan attracted
an army of critics, including privacy advocates, who said DoubleClick would
usher in a new age of surveillance. The Federal Trade Commission began
investigating the company; investors, who got skittish, started to dump
When the blows and bad PR had cost DoubleClick half its market value, CEO O
Connor backpedaled. "I made a mistake," he said. O Connor pledged to delay
the database until there was "agreement between government and industry on
Despite its public disavowals, DoubleClick nevertheless continues to lay
the groundwork for the database by collecting vast amounts of information
about where people go online. And the news that they are employing their
invisible tracking devices on health and porn sites could cause them new
political, public relations, and legal woes. The FTC has asked Congress for
more authority to sue companies who are in violation of consumer privacy,
although Congress is not expected to enact new laws anytime soon.
If DoubleClick ever chooses to merge the data from the Web bugs and cookie
files with its existing consumer dossiers, it will create a database of
unprecedented depth. The form will not only have purchasing history and
demographic information of some 100 million Americans at its fingertips, but
also information about their sexual preferences and health conditions. For
now, the records are not merged. But they lie there on servers, waiting.
Mark Boal > Senior Writer > Brills Content
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