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Tracking The Companies That Track You Online.

Nearly all of the most commonly visited websites install invisible tracking software on your computer so the information can be sold to advertisers. Julia Angwin, who recently led a team of Wall Street Journal reporters investigating the practice, explains what companies do with the information -- and how you can protect your privacy online.

45:19

Other segments from the episode on August 19, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 19, 2010: Interview with Julia Angwin; Review of Steve Coleman & Five Elements' album "Harvesting Semblances and Affinities."

Transcript

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Tracking The Companies That Track You Online

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

So if you're wondering what new ways surfing the Internet might compromise your
privacy, you've come to the right place. Our guest, Julia Angwin, recently led
a team of reporters from the Wall Street Journal, who discovered that nearly
all of the most commonly visited websites are using sophisticated software to
track our movements through the Web so they can sell the information they get
about us. In many cases, the sites actually install tracking software on our
home computers without our knowledge.

One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet, Angwin writes, is the
business of spying on Internet users. The Journal reporters found that even
their own newspaper's website is in on the consumer surveillance game.

Julia Angwin is senior technology editor of the Wall Street Journal and author
of the book "Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website
in America." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Julia Angwin, welcome to FRESH AIR. I thought we'd begin
with the 26-year-old woman from Tennessee who appears in your story and who has
discovered, I assume through your reporting, that her computer has software
that's gathered a lot of information about her. What kind of information was
being harvested without her knowing?

Ms. JULIA ANGWIN (Senior Technology Editor, Wall Street Journal; Author,
"Stealing MySpace"): So what we found that the company tracking Ashley Hayes-
Beaty knew was that she – all of her favorite movies, her age, her hometown and
that she liked quizzes and entertainment news.

DAVIES: And this information was being gathered how?

Ms. ANGWIN: So there were two parts to the information gathering. The first
part was there - she was given an ID number which was stored on her computer in
something called a cookie. And a cookie is something that is just a text file
on your computer, really just gives you an ID. And when you visit a website,
oftentimes these cookies are installed without you knowing it. So she had an ID
number in her cookie.

Separately, when she went to some websites, they had a different kind of
technology called a beacon, which is another invisible kind of tracker that
runs some software while you're on a page and tries to assess what you're doing
on that page.

So in her case, this beacon was actually seeing her activity around movies, in
particular. So she had listed her favorite movies on a website, and it saw that
she was typing those in and captured that data and put it in her profile, which
is stored at some mother ship, where there's a little drawer that has her ID
number. And inside the drawer, there's a file, and the file says these are her
favorite movies. And every time they find out new information about her, they
add more to the file.

DAVIES: Okay, but the information that was doing all this was not something
that she asked for or that came installed on her computer when she bought it,
right?

Ms. ANGWIN: No. So what's happening is that there are tons of companies like
the one who was following Ashley that are out there in the business of
gathering information about people while they browse the Internet.

So this company, named Lotame, had a relationship with some of the websites
that she was browsing on, and those websites basically allowed Lotame to
install this monitoring software on her computer.

DAVIES: I guess what's surprising to a lot of people is that when you go onto
the Internet, this little piece of information-gathering software comes the
other way.

We think of us as connecting to the Internet, but when we connect to some of
these sites, this little information-gathering software slithers back into our
computer, embeds itself there and then begins spying on us. Is that too strong
a word?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. I mean, I think spying is not necessarily too strong a word,
although I think surveillance is probably slightly more accurate. The thing is
that the advertising industry online has evolved to really rely on a lot of
these surveillance or monitoring techniques.

And most people that we have heard from since writing these stories did not
know what was going on. So when they - when you go to a website, you're not
thinking about the fact that they might have relationships with all these
different types of monitoring firms, and that those firms are installing things
that are invisible to you on our computer.

Now, there are some very tech-savvy people who know - who are diligent about
removing cookies and trying to block all this type of monitoring software, but
the vast majority of people that we've heard from didn't know about it.

DAVIES: Right. So the average computer user, the person that does some shopping
online, that enjoys surfing the Web, how many different little pieces of
information-gathering software might they have on their computer, without their
knowledge?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, definitely hundreds, right? Because we did a survey of the
top 50 U.S. websites to see how many they installed on our test computer, and
collectively, they installed more than 3,000 pieces of tracking technology.

So that would imply that by just browsing the top 50 websites, you would get
3,000 things on your computer.

DAVIES: That's a lot.

Ms. ANGWIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: It's a lot.

DAVIES: Maybe you should explain just a little bit about how you and your team
at the Journal did this kind of research. I assume you did not go to the public
relations departments of these websites and ask them.

Ms. ANGWIN: No. I mean, we did talk to the public relations departments of
these websites after we did our survey. But what we did was we hired a
researcher who specialized in doing this type of data collection.

He had a clean computer, and he cleared it of all tracking devices that had
already been installed, made sure that, you know, he wasn't browsing and
collecting things from previous visits.

And then he went to visit each of these sites and saw what kind of technology
was installed on his computer when – after that visit. And he tried to visit 20
pages on each site.

And during this, we – there are many different types of tracking technology out
there. We focused on collecting data on three of the most prevalent types - so
cookies, which are text files that are stored on your computer, and most of
them give you sort of a unique ID number.

We looked at Flash cookies, which are also similar to cookies, but they're
stored by your Flash video player. So when you watch YouTube videos or other
Flash animations online, that program could be installing a Flash cookie.

And we also looked at beacons, which are basically invisible bits of software
code that are installed or that run live while you're on a Web page.

DAVIES: One of the most surprising things that I read in one of your stories
was that a number of the websites that you looked at that were clearly
installing information-gathering software on people's computers didn't even
know they were doing it. How does that happen?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah, it's amazing. So we were surprised about that. We thought
that it would be the case that most websites would know that they had a
relationship with these third-party companies that are installing tracking
devices.

But, in fact, we found that tracking devices, the way they're distributed is
that they can often be distributed by a third party. So, for instance, the
tracking company might place one of its little monitoring devices within an ad,
and then when that ad appears on the website page, the device is installed. So
the website doesn't actually know what's being installed on its users'
computers.

We also found that tracking devices sometimes contained other tracking devices
in them. So there is what's known as piggy-backing. And so they might know
about the relationship with one, but they don't know about the one that was
contained inside of it.

DAVIES: Wow. Let's put some names with these. You looked at the nation's top 50
websites, found that they were installing, collectively, around 3,000 pieces of
information-tracking software in people's computers. What are some of these
websites?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, so we looked at all the big websites. I mean, the top 50 list
includes, you know, Google and YouTube and Facebook, all the sites that you
normally think of as the top websites.

What we found was the sites that were installing the most, the one site that
installed the most was dictionary.com, actually. They - a visit to
dictionary.com resulted in 234 trackers being installed on our test computer.
And only 11 of those were installed by dictionary.com.

So this might be a good moment to just mention that some tracking devices are
completely innocuous. A cookie, or some kind of tracker is what remembers your
password. And so if you ask a website to remember your login, that would be
stored on a cookie.

So there are tracking devices that are useful to you as a Web browser. And
those tend to be the ones installed by the website that you actually have a
relationship, not the ones that you've never heard of before that are sort of
secretly lurking behind the scenes.

And so on dictionary.com, most of the trackers, the vast majority, more than
200 of the 234 were installed by companies that the person visiting the site
probably had never heard of.

DAVIES: Hmm. So, if those of us who are out there on the Web, using it as
normal users do, have dozens, maybe hundreds of these pieces of information-
tracking software that are gathering information about us without our
knowledge, where does it go, and what do the people who are getting it do with
it?

Ms. ANGWIN: Basically, there's an ecosystem of hundreds of online advertising
companies who are in the business of tracking Web surfers. And for many years,
most of them had their own network of tracking, and then they would take that
data and try to sell it directly to an advertiser.

What's happened in the past year and a half is that now there are data markets
where these tracking companies now try to sell your data on an exchange, which
is really like a real-time, Wall Street sort of automated trading floor, where
the data about your behavior online is being sold at auction.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, this I'm trying to picture, and you did write in the piece
that one of these companies that trades this stuff sells 50 million pieces of
information a day for as little as a 10th of a penny a piece. Explain this to
me. What kind of information do they get about me, and who's going to want to
buy it that day for a fraction of a penny?

Ms. ANGWIN: So if you do something that has high value online, for instance
searching for a car - basically, searching for something to purchase, that
makes you very interesting to an advertiser.

And so the information would be something like ID number so-and-so is looking
for a car. And the company that captures the information may post it for sale
immediately, almost instantaneously, on one of these trading floors.

So the one that we wrote about was called BlueKai, and for instance, they have
a relationship with eBay. So at the moment – I've done this many times. I went
and searched for something on eBay. Then I looked in the BlueKai registry -
which they are kind enough to show you what data they're selling about you. You
can see almost immediately that it pops up and says you're in the market for
whatever it is that you've just searched for on eBay.

Then there are a bunch of advertisers lined up at their door who have already
placed bids to automatically buy up anybody who's in the market for that item.
And so instantaneously, they can show you an ad wherever you next land on the
Web for whatever product it was you were just looking for.

DAVIES: Wow. So if I look for some new dining room furniture, some third-party
tracker gets that information, puts this up on an exchange and says: Anybody
want to find people looking for dining room furniture? Somebody who's selling
dining room furniture says, yeah, I'll buy 200 of them for X price, they get
that information, and then can find a way to get to me.

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. And you may have had this experience. I mean, I certainly
have. There was a pair of shoes that I was looking at online, and then those
particular shoes actually followed me around on every website I went to for a
month.

They had clearly bought me. And maybe this is because I'm tuned into it because
I'm writing about it, but you may have noticed that various items are following
you around online.

DAVIES: Now, explain this. What do you mean these shoes are following you
around?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: They really were. They really were following me around. I looked at
them, and then I put them in my basket, because for me - which is rather sad,
but for me, this is what constitutes fun, is putting things in my basket that
I'm not going to buy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: It's just like - it's like window shopping, right? So I put them in
my basket, thinking if I was really rich, I would buy these shoes. But I don't
feel rich right now, so I'm not going to.

But they were able to follow me around, and a good number of the websites that
I went to in the next month had those exact shoes in an ad looking at me. And
this particular type of tracking and monitoring is called re-targeting, and
it's considered one of the most productive types of targeting because I
actually ended up buying the shoes because they kept following me for so long
that I finally caved in.

DAVIES: Oh, that is creepy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah, and you know what? It's not that creepy with shoes, to be
honest with you. I wasn't – I didn't mind so much. But I think what's creepy
about it is that they target on things like, are you bipolar?

So imagine that you've been searching for information about bipolar disease,
and then every ad is targeting you as bipolar. That seems creepy. That's where
you get into the question about health data and financial data, or some of
these things maybe should be protected categories.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Julia Angwin of the Wall Street Journal. She led a
team that looked into companies that gather information about us on the
Internet.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Julia Angwin. She is a
senior technology editor at the Wall Street Journal. She led a team that looked
into companies that gather information about us on the Internet. She's also the
author of a book called "Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most
Popular Website in America."

I wanted to ask you a little bit about these, I guess for a lack of a better
word, middlemen - I mean, these people who promote these tracking devices and
then gather this data and then slice it and dice it and price it and put it up
on these exchanges and sell it in huge batches to whoever is offering to meet
the price. Who are these people? I mean, are these 26-year-olds in sneakers?
Are they big companies?

Ms. ANGWIN: They're mostly 26-year-olds in sneakers, and they might have a
Ph.D. in math or statistics. So, I mean, these are quants, right? They used to
– you know, some of them used to work on Wall Street. Some of them might have
been responsible for blowing up the financial markets.

But basically, the ad business, it's no longer "Mad Men." You don't have men
sitting there drinking martinis, at least not with this online business. This
is really a math exercise. People are building algorithms that can
automatically slice and dice this data and build these profiles without any
humans sort of really looking at them, and it's a very - it's like a real-time,
you know, everything happens in milliseconds and it's all about, you know, how
big is the computer you can get to do these calculations.

DAVIES: Now let's clarify a couple of things here. When this information is
gathered about you, are they getting your name, or just some long serial number
that - associated with your computer?

Ms. ANGWIN: No. They are generally not getting your name. In fact, that's – the
industry says we never get your name. Occasionally, you might register at a
website, and that website has your name, but in general, these third-party
monitoring, tracking devices don't know your name, even if the website you're
visiting does. So that's one thing to point out, is they don't know your name.
They know your behavior.

One thing, though, that the industry is doing more and more often is they're
using your behavior to make inferences about who they think you are. So they
may buy data from some offline brokers estimating your income, your age, your
hometown, et cetera. And so they can make some pretty educated guesses about
who you are, but they are not attempting to find out your name.

DAVIES: Okay, so they build a - kind of a demographic profile of you, in
effect.

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah, it's exactly right. They put you in some sort of bucket. And
some of these buckets have funny names. We talked about them in one of the
stories that, you know, they categorize Americans into all these different
segments, like white picket fences or bohemian mix or, you know, bohemian
urban-dwellers. You know, so you might be in some bucket.

DAVIES: But I guess, you know, to the layman who hears this, you wonder, well,
okay. But if they're tracking all this stuff, if they're getting into my
computer without me knowing it, and if they can follow my keystrokes, what
prevents them from getting the password to my online bank account or looking at
the Quicken files with all my family financial information?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah, look. I think that the keystroke monitoring that we wrote
about is pretty avant-garde. That was, you know, the websites involved do know
that they're allowing that particular kind of monitoring, and they only allow
it on certain pages where fairly innocuous things are happening, like talking
about movies that you like.

We haven't seen any evidence of somebody deliberately allowing keystroke
monitoring on a page where you would enter any sort of sensitive information,
and I think you would be entering into the realm of fraud at that point, not
what this is, which is a legitimate industry based around tracking your
movements in an anonymous way.

Now, you might want to argue with whether this is legitimate, what they're
doing, but I don't think anyone in it is actively engaged in fraud that I know
of.

But it does raise the question, because the technology is out that it could get
into, you know, bad hands.

DAVIES: I want to clarify one thing: Beacons are a particular kind of software
that gets installed on people's computers to gather information. Does that
track keystrokes?

Ms. ANGWIN: So, beacons are basically a kind of software that runs in the
background while you're on a page, live. It doesn't install onto your computer.
And they can do a variety of things, including log your keystrokes, if the
website that has installed that beacon allows that to happen.

It's fairly rare that anyone is allowing a keystroke capture. The instance that
we talked about, though, with the movies and the woman whose favorite movies
were known by a tracking company, that company had a relationship with a
website that allowed them to capture her typing in her favorite movies, but
that's fairly unusual and probably the cutting edge of use of beacons.

DAVIES: So what distinguishes a beacon from cookies is that they're not on your
computer, they're on the website, and they're following what you're doing?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. The beacon is running on the page, in the background, but a
cookie is something that is stored on your hard drive and doesn't take -
doesn't sort of actively monitor. It only knows what page you're on. But it's
not attempting to see what you're doing on that page.

GROSS: Julia Angwin will continue her discussion with FRESH AIR contributor
Dave Davies about how we're tracked on the Internet in the second half of the
show. Angwin is senior technology editor for the Wall Street Journal.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We're talking about one of the
fastest growing businesses on the Internet: spying on consumers. Our guest,
Julia Angwin, led a team of reporters from The Wall Street Journal that
investigated how most of the commonly visited websites use sophisticated
software to track our movements through the Web so they can sell the
information they get about us.

Angwin is senior technology editor at The Wall Street Journal. She spoke with
FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about the use of tracking software and the
new issues it raises.

DAVIES: This has to raise some privacy concerns. Are there court cases on this,
on what's permissible and what isn't?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, when cookies were first introduced and started to be used for
advertising, there were a few cases and the courts ruled that it was a fair use
of cookies to have advertisers kind of quietly install them in the background
of a website. And the legal thinking around that had to do with a telephone
law.

Basically, the argument was it was sort of like the website was a caller and
you were - and they were talking to you on the phone and they were sort of
secretly allowing a friend to listen in on another line. And so, there is a
legal grounding for this type of monitoring.

What's happening now is that this kind of monitoring has exploded, right.
There's more trackers than anyone ever envisioned back then a decade ago, and
so a lot of people are rethinking some of these laws. There's a couple bills
pending in Congress and the Federal Trade Commission is rethinking its
guidelines on privacy and planning to issue new guidelines by the end of the
year.

DAVIES: What are some of the issues that you think should concern us the most?

Ms. ANGWIN: One issue is the question of anonymity. I think it's totally fair
to say that these tracking companies don’t know your name, but my feeling is,
if they know everything else about you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: ...does it matter that they don’t know your name? Right, because it
feels intrusive to have somebody know so much about you, particularly when we
do so much online. I mean, for at least for me, I do everything online. So my,
when I look at my record of my browsing history or I look at what Web pages
I've looked at, it really seems to be like a record of my thoughts.

Every time I have a thought it seems I actually take an action online and
Google it. So it does build up these incredibly rich dossiers. So I think one
question is: Is knowing your name the right definition of anonymity? Right now
that is considered anonymous. If they don’t know your name, they're sort of not
covered by laws that regulate personally identifiable information. And that's
what the FTC is considering, is whether the definition of personal information
should be expanded beyond just name and Social Security address number and a
few other things.

Another thing that it raises is sensitive information. So if you’re looking at
gay websites and then, you’re sort of labeled as gay in some database somewhere
and that follows you around and you’re sold on some exchange as gay and you
just may not want that to happen. So I feel that there are some categories of
information being collected that we as a society might not want to be
collected: our political affiliation, our diseases, our income levels and, you
know, many other things. You know, what if you’re feeling suicidal and you
Google, you spend a bunch of time looking at suicide pages - do you want that
sort of in some database somewhere?

DAVIES: In addition to which, they can get it wrong, right? I mean, you might
be researching something that you’re not necessarily interested in and they
could be misled.

Ms. ANGWIN: Exactly. And then you’re going to see that all the time and people
are going to make judgments about you based on that. And, you know, and we have
laws about your credit score. Your credit score affects a lot of things in your
financial life. And because it’s so important and affects so many things, there
are laws that say you get to see the components of your credit score and have
the ability to correct them. Now it's not so easy to do that, as anyone who has
tried knows, but at least you have the legal right to that.

And I think that we might reach a time where this kind of tracking information,
your electronic dossier, might determine so much about your life that you would
want the ability to see it and correct it. And there are websites that are
beginning to offer that, so the industry has acknowledged that but it doesn’t
go far enough, in my opinion.

DAVIES: And how would they correct it? I mean, you can look at your own profile
and amend it?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. So some websites, some of the bigger companies in this
tracking field: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, this trading exchange Bluki that I
mentioned, Lotame, the company that monitored that woman's movie preferences,
they have places you can go on their Web pages, assuming you’ve ever heard of
them, and know to do this, and they will tell you what they think what they
know about you. So you might go in and it says, oh, we think you’re, you know,
15 years old and you love, you know, you love gambling and you love sports and
if we're wrong you can fix this, or you can try to remove all the information.
Most of them will allow you to remove all the information from the profiles.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of computers are shared. And then, of course, if a
profile is built of you, around you based on the computer you use, you’re not
going to keep that computer forever. Isn't this information, I mean, both
transitory and in some ways misleading because you could have four or five
people using a computer at home.

Ms. ANGWIN: Yes, it's true. The information is both transitory and misleading.
So what most of the data exchanges or most of the people buying this
information pay a lot for recency(ph) because they feel that any actions you
took a month ago might not really reflect who you are. But a lot of this market
is actually really instantaneous, so that you could take an action on one Web
page and then see something different on the next Web page. And so, that's how
they attempt to get around the problems that you’re talking about, which are
the shared computers and the fact some of it might be wrong.

DAVIES: Which browsers or websites stood out as protecting privacy better than
others?

Ms. ANGWIN: So it's worth calling out Wikipedia because they, on principal,
don’t allow any type of tracking technology on their website, so they were the
only one we found with none. Facebook actually and a few other sites had very
few. I think Facebook is a good example of a company that has plenty of
information about you and really no interest in sharing that information. So
there's no reason for them to allow someone else in to spy on you since, you
know, their big value is that they know so much about everybody. So some of the
websites were better, but on average, most websites install 64 different types
of tracking technology, so the average is still pretty high.

In terms of Web browsers, none of them are great at blocking this type of
monitoring. We had a big story about Microsoft and the battle at Microsoft
internally about whether they could improve the privacy of their Web browser
software. And ultimately, they decided not to improve it, in large part because
of the advertising side of their business. And that's - the sad truth is that
the two - two of the biggest browser makers, Microsoft and Google, are very
heavily in the advertising business, which is essentially a business of
tracking. So they have very little incentive to improve the ability of the Web
browser to block this type of software. So the best way to get around this kind
of tracking is you have to install some additional software into your Web
browser that would block it.

DAVIES: Yeah, let's just pause over Microsoft for a moment here, because
Microsoft Explorer I guess is by far the most widely used Web browser. And
there was this debate about whether they would change, I guess, the default
settings, right, so as to exclude this kind of information gathering. Was that
the debate, essentially?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. I mean, the engineers at Microsoft had a very innovative
idea, which was to attempt to block tracking devices from companies that didn’t
appear to be the one that you were transacting with. So, meaning, if it's not
the website that you’re actually visiting and it's some other company
installing some tracking device on your Web browser, the default was going to
be no, I don’t want that. And unfortunately, their view was overruled by the
advertising side of company.

DAVIES: Right. And just kind of help us understand that. Why would the
advertising side of Microsoft want users of the Internet Explorer to have all
these third-party information tracking devices installed or pieces of software
on their user's computers?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, Microsoft is not just a Web browser maker, it's also, it runs
a very big online advertising firm. And that firm was among the biggest
trackers that we found in our database, so they were the second largest
installer of tracking software among the 50 websites we surveyed after Google.
So they are in the business of tracking users and compiling profiles of users
and then selling those to advertisers. So the idea that this Web browser
would've blocked that would undermine the entire business model, not just of
their ad business, but really of the entire online advertising industry. So it
was a very threatening move that these engineers at Microsoft were proposing.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Julia Angwin of The Wall Street Journal. She led a
team that looked into companies that gather information about us on the
Internet. She's also the author of a book called "Stealing MySpace: The Battle
to Control the Most Popular Website in America."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we're speaking with Julia Angwin. She is a
senior technology editor at The Wall Street Journal. She led a team that looked
into companies that gather information about us on the Internet.

Nobody has more information about us than Google. Are they going to – are they
marketing what they know about us?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yes. So Google is – yes, Google seems to know everything about me
for sure. And I do, I think that that's probably true for most people. Google
has been extremely cautious in the past about using what it knows about people,
in part because their business is built on trust. One reason we share so much
with Google is that we trust them not to abuse it.

But the developments in the online ad industry have been moving so fast, right,
so tracking has become so pervasive and the markets for data have become - have
sprung up out of nowhere, that Google is now actually being forced - maybe
forced is too strong a word - but Google is now moving more in the direction of
tracking than it ever has before.

In the early days, you know, the founders of Google were opposed even to the
idea of using cookies. And now they're among the biggest trackers and they are
considering all sorts of moves into what really is the leading edge of this
industry.

DAVIES: So just to be clear, I mean, one of the things that we know Google does
now and it's a great revenue source for them is that if we go online looking
for running shoes and do a search, it'll pop up ads from people who are selling
running shoes, even running shoes near where we live. But what we're talking
about is them keeping - aggregating all this data they get from all of the
times we’ve used their search engine to go to all kinds of websites, taking all
that data, aggregating it and selling it to others. They're not doing that yet
but they may?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, the thing is that right now when you go to Google and do a
search, you’ve told them what you’re interested in, right? So when they serve
up an ad to you based on that interest, it's not as creepy as in...

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. ANGWIN: ...the shoes that I was looking at started following me around from
website to website. But Google, in addition to having a search advertising
business, has a company called DoubleClick that they bought two years ago and
that company really places ads across many websites all across the Internet.
And so, Google is really looking at how do they improve that business? So not
so much about their search business, but how can they use all the data they
have about online behavior across all their properties to help improve their
ability to serve up these ads across all the other websites that DoubleClick
and their other ad properties serve?

And that's where you get into the issue of well, could they use some of the
data they have in one bucket, maybe their search data or information they have
about what you’re interested in from Gmail to improve the targeting abilities
of their other advertising business.

DAVIES: Is anybody in the government thinking about this stuff?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah. I think that, you know, there are some bills in Congress that
aim to tackle these issues and the Federal Trade Commission has been holding a
series of roundtable discussions this year about privacy and, particularly,
about this tracking business. But it's a really hard thing to regulate.

This is an industry that's moving at light speed. There are new types of
tracking technology every day. There are new issues about new platforms. So
we’ve been talking about tracking online but mobile is a whole different world,
right, that's where they know your location. And, you know, the cookies on your
mobile phone, the tracking places, you can't even see them.

At least on your computer you can go into the back room, sort of, of your
computer and see what's being installed there. Most cell phones don’t even
allow you to see what kind of data is being tracked. So I think the problem for
regulators is, how do you get your arms around sort of this ever-expanding pool
of technology, and as soon as you regulate some, another one's going to pop up
somewhere else.

DAVIES: Let's talk about things consumers can do themselves if they want to.
Can you block this information gathering software from making its way on to
your computer?

Ms. ANGWIN: Yeah, you can do a couple things. You can try to play around with
your Web browser settings to block the type of cookies, but none of the Web
browsers have made it particularly easy - although, Apple Safari, by default,
blocks third-party cookies, which is a large part of the tracking but not all
of it. Then you could also install additional software on to your computer that
would block this tracking. So there's one in particular that we recommended
called Abine, A-b-i-n-e, which will block all the types of tracking that we
looked at in our database, which is cookies, flash cookies and beacons.

And also you can go to the websites of all of these tracking companies and ask
them not to track you — which is kind of absurd, because you'd have to know who
they are. There is a list of all of them on the ad industry's webpage and you
can opt out of all of them at the same time. But one thing to know about opting
out of tracking is that they actually put a tracker on your computer saying
don't track me. So you're opting in to being tracked for not being tracked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, and I should also say that the series that you and your team did
in The Wall Street Journal has a really terrific Web section, in which a lot of
this is explained and a lot of information about individual browsers and
websites is contained. So you can go on to The Wall Street Journal website, in
the non-charging part of it - although, as you note in your piece, when you go
on to The Wall Street Journal's website, it also install tracking software,
right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: Yes, it does. We checked our self, too, to make sure that we are
being fair and The Wall Street Journal installed just slightly less than the -
average number of trackers. But yeah, we built a big online database of all the
trackers we found on each website, and this was actually for us, at The
Journal, a new thing. We haven't been building big comprehensive online
databases. So we wanted people to really have a chance to look at their
favorite websites, see what we found there and explore some of the information
about how their data might be used.

DAVIES: Is there anything else that should worry us or reassure us on this
subject?

Ms. ANGWIN: Well, one thing that worries me about this emerging market for data
is what - who's buying it. Right now it's primarily advertisers. But there's
nothing to stop a health insurance company from going in and buying data about
all the people who are browsing sites that are talking about certain diseases
and then trying to figure out whether they can exclude them from their
policies. Or an insurance company looking at people who are browsing sites for
like super fast car driving and then trying to go make their premiums go up.
And we haven't seen this yet, but the fact that this data is available raises
that possibility and that worries me.

DAVIES: You know, one of the fascinating, and maybe troubling things to
contemplate about this, is if these companies are collecting this information,
building a profile about us that they assume is accurate but may not be, that's
then sold to advertisers as well as, you know, websites which then tailor what
they present to us on the Internet, based on who they think we are. I mean is
there a concern that we're - what - getting a, either a reflection of our own
interests and losing kind of the diversity of the Web, or that they're getting
it wrong?

Ms. ANGWIN: I mean yes, this is a concern. I mean, I don’t know if you or our
listeners know this, but already, Google has started using what it thinks it
knows about you to give you different search results. So you and I would see
different results based on where Google thinks we're located and the cookie on
our computer, the I.D. number, and the information they have about our previous
searches. And they are trying to provide us better service, but at the same
time they could be wrong about what we want to see. And this is true across the
Web. So as more websites are using this type of data to customize their
experience, so a new site customizing it, based on the fact that they think
you’re a sports fan and putting sports news first - where we wrote about a
credit card company that's showing credit card offers based on who they think
you are - that you’re starting to see an Internet that looks like yourself -
that you’re standing in a hall of mirrors and all you see around you is this
reflective version of yourself - that might be true, actually, but is sort of
the dossier that's been built up about you electronically.

To me, that changes the entire experience of the Internet and makes it a place
that feels very narrow. And the beauty of the Internet is sort of the breadth
and width of our experience there, that you can find anything you want and that
you have this feeling that you’re anonymous and that you can sort of peer in to
other people's lives.

DAVIES: Well, Julia Angwin, it's been an education. Thanks so much for speaking
with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANGWIN: Okay. Thank you.

GROSS: Julia Angwin spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She's senior
technology editor at The Wall Street Journal.

Our website has links to her articles about consumer surveillance on the
Internet, and we have links to websites that will help you opt out of being
tracked by companies that want to gather information about you while you’re on
the Internet. Our website is freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by Steve Coleman and Five
Elements.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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Steve Coleman: 'Harvesting' Funky, Brainy Jazz

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman has been a major force in jazz since the
1980s. A nurturer of young musicians and a composer whose diverse influences
include serial procedures derived from modern European composers and the
counterpunch rhythms of boxer Floyd Joy Mayweather, Jr.

Coleman's first album in several years with his band Five Elements has been
released. Jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead like it.

(Soundbite of song, "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: As a composer, Steve Coleman has been heavily influenced by
James Brown's funk. You wouldn't mistake Coleman's band Five Elements for the
J.B.'s, but like the Godfather of Soul, he goes in for fast, jittery beats. On
Coleman's new album, "Harvesting Semblances and Affinities," Five Elements is
powered by a rhythm duo who sync up in a few bands: bassist Thomas Morgan and
drum phenom Tyshawn Sorey.

(Soundbite of song, "Beba")

Ms. JEN SHYU (Vocalist): (Scatting)

WHITEHEAD: Jen Shyu on vocals.

Steve Coleman has always connected with singers. Coming up in the 1980s, he
worked with the veteran Abbey Lincoln and fellow newcomer Cassandra Wilson.
Shyu's role is slippery here. She's not quite out front and not quite fully
aligned with the sextet's three horns. Her main feature is the one non-original
tune, Coleman's setting of a choral work by Danish composer Per Norgard. He's
an influence on Coleman's own arcane ways of developing material — like dipping
into the so-called undertone series, which is basically the natural overtone
series turned upside down. Don't ask me to explain it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHYU: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WHITEHEAD: If Steve Coleman's music sounds a little chilly sometimes, it's
because he's more interested in compositional logics than setting a mood.
That's okay, there's room for all kinds of approaches. That adapted choral
music prompts us to see Coleman as a composer of contemporary art songs. His
pieces often revolve around looping phrases or recurring patterns that overlap
or seep into each other. It's the West African drum-choir principle - wheels
within wheels can keep rolling indefinitely.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Because Steve Coleman generates his own musical rules, he's had to
school musicians in his organizing principles, and his band includes younger
players open and smart enough to keep up with the concepts. His new album was
actually recorded in 2006, and the musicians involved have already gone on to
apply his lessons elsewhere. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey, trombonist Tim Albright and
the fine trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson all play in Steve Lehman's octet, with
its own complex procedures. Coleman has also influenced a host of younger
saxophone players. So, he doesn't just make music that's brainy and funky; he
also helps shape players who develop things still further on their own. That's
really giving something back to the music.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed
"Harvesting Semblances and Affinities," the new CD by Steve Coleman and Five
Elements on the Pi label.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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