Profiles of computer users 'bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges'


A class-action lawsuit filed in a federal court last week alleges that Disney and other large corporations spied on visitors to their Web sites using "Flash cookies" installed on users' browsers.

The lawsuit, filed in a US District Court in California on behalf of a group of parents and their children, alleges that Clearpsring, a company contracted by Disney, Warner Bros. Records, Playlist.com and other Web site operators, used its AddThis Web page tool to install "Flash cookies" in computer browsers which would then track individual computer users.

According to a report at CNET, the lawsuit states these cookies can't be erased using the usual methods of erasing browser history because they are built on Flash technology. Additionally, SecPoint.com reports that these Flash cookies can even un-delete, or "re-spawn," regular cookies that were erased by the user.

Once installed, these small pieces of software tracked users "across numerous Web sites, even spotting and tracking users when they accessed the Web from different computers, at home and at work," the lawsuit alleges.

"The data could reveal details about a person's financial situation, sexual preference, name, home, and e-mail addresses and telephone numbers," reports Greg Sandoval at CNET. "Perhaps one of the most disturbing charges that plaintiffs make is that health information could also be acquired by these companies."

The suit was filed by the Law Office of Joseph Malley -- the same law firm that last month launched another suit, that one against Clearspring competitor Quantcast, which works with ABC and NBC, among other companies. That lawsuit made similar allegations against Quantcast, saying the company used Flash cookies to invade users' privacy.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal, published last month, found that about six percent of the cookies installed by major Web sites on people's computers were un-deletable Flash cookies. That information was then used to create detailed profiles of computer users.

"These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months," WSJ reported.

The investigation concluded that "the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry."

A study from the University of California at Berkeley, published last year, found that, of its sample of major Web sites, more than half used Flash technology to track users. The study even identified government Web sites, such as WhiteHouse.gov, as using questionable tracking methods.

"Earlier litigation has confirmed the right of sites to place cookies, but certain tracking behaviors are still subject to legal questions," the WSJ reports.

The plaintiffs in the Clearspring suit are petitioning to have their lawsuit classified as a class-action. They are seeking unspecified damages, CNET reports.