Dictionary.com installs over 200 tracking cookies on visitors computers

In the past I have been known to use dictionary.com and thesaurus.com. Not anymore. I distinctly remember visiting dictionary.com a few weeks ago. It was the first visit since upgrading my OS and browser. I was shocked by how sluggish it was to load. I remember opening another tab and doing a search for other dictionary sites because I got tired of waiting. I now know why.

A friend passed me a link to an article today at The Wall Street Journal titled “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets” which is a really interesting read and the first in a series they are running on how businesses on the internet are spying on their customers. I’ve written a few apps that use cookies, and to be honest I held the opinion that a few cookies stored by your browser is not a problem. However, in the article linked above the writers explain how they set up a test computer and visit a list of top sites frequented by US web users. I assume they clean out the browser’s history and cookies before each site and check what’s been installed after the visit. After their testing, in regards to cookies and small pieces of software installed, here’s what they say:

“The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.’s Dictionary.com. A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal’s test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users.”

No wonder dictionary.com takes so long to load, it’s installing a hidden payload, an army of files on your computer for third party tracking companies.

“Whether it’s one or 10 cookies, it doesn’t have any impact on the customer experience, and we disclose we do it,” says Dictionary.com spokesman Nicholas Graham. “So what’s the beef?”

One or ten? What about over 200?
This is a worrying sign. I can understand that websites like dictionary.com need to generate revenue, but when groups of salesmen get together and come up with schemes like auctioning off your information in bundles on the open market labeled as “audience data” I find it a little disturbing. Bluekai.com is one of these companies and claims to be:

“the center of the digital data economy and the largest auction marketplace for all audience data.”

The term audience data makes me feel uneasy, but there is something I find more worrying. This is an unregulated industry, and there are profits involved. Companies like this claim to collect information on you anonymously, meaning that they don’t store your name, DOB etc.. but what if the company also has say… an application integrated with facebook, or data scrapers on other websites. Cross referencing its tracking codes would not be difficult. I guess it depends how much you care about marketing sites and audience data sites profiling you and your web habits.

parasites!

parasites! (Photo/USDA-Agricultural Research Service)

I am obviously not the only person concearned about this. Disturbingly, I recently learned via slashdot that a privacy activist has filed a lawsuit against MTV, ESPN, MySpace, Hulu, ABC, Scribd, Quantcast and others aledging that the sites use a form of zombie “flash cookie” that recreates itself even if users have gone out of their way to delete it. In other words, these sites are basically installing viruses with the specific aim of tracking what you do on line. Whether it is the companies and corporations listed directly or third parties using their sites as launch vehicles to get access to you, they all benefit.
One of the problems with flash is, if someone wants to, they can code it to do pretty much whatever they want using its ActionScript language. Somehow I doubt the guys collecting information on you have any dignity or respect for your privacy. Especially when $23 billion was spent on this form of marketing last year. I can’t help but think of leaches waiting on low hanging branches waiting for you to brush past so they can jump on and suck your blood!
One of the great things about the web is its anonymity. I don’t like the idea of a website knowing my demographic when I show up and how much extra they can charge me for an airline ticket. The volume of drive by trackers being installed on peoples computers is alarming.
It is going to be an ongoing battle to remain anonymous online, and if you don’t want companies trying to sell you the latest weight loss system because you once looked up obesity, or governments flagging you as a terrorist because you read the wrong article, you should be concerned about privacy online too.

Update: Here’s an alternative to Dictionary.com: thefreedictionary.com. It also has the nifty feature of allowing you to enter the word at the end of your URL. Like this: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/word

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23 Responses to Dictionary.com installs over 200 tracking cookies on visitors computers

  1. Mike A says:

    As a test I browsed to Dictionary.com using FF3.6.13. Had set options to block third party cookies before doing this. Then ran my Norton scanner. No tracking cookies were detected. However, if I load Windows Live Mail., the ATDMT cookie is then detected and erased. But if WLM is still up, the cookie is regenerated. If I close WLM, then run Norton scan, the cookie is detected and eliminated but not regenerated. So it looks like WLM is at least an enabler of this tracking cookie. I use Dictionary.com a lot and will see how this goes over time.

    • Craig P Johnson says:

      Hi Mike. It’s good that you set the preferences on FF before you hit dictionary.com. I understand why you have used dictionary.com. I used it too. I have now started using http://www.thefreedictionary.comand I have no regrets… however I haven’t checked for malware or cookies post hitting the site.

      How can a free service continue to operate? They have to derive revenue from somewhere..

      c

  2. Anon_Guy says:

    I found this article after noticing that some of the advertisements on dictionary.reference.com explicitly mentioned some of the items/organizations I had recently searched for information about. Thanks!

    Also – side tip – I stumbled upon a free program called Word Web. It is *GASP* a local dictionary/thesaurus. If you want to see a performance increase, try it out – it reminded me just how fast computing COULD be when resources were local as opposed to stored online. Besides, dictionary definitions don’t change with great frequency…

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