Yesterday the New York Times launched a special project and hub on privacy, which they say will be a “monthslong project to explore the technology and where it’s taking us, and to convene debate about how it can best help realize human potential.”
Yet even as they dedicate whole web pages and splashy graphics to the subject of privacy, data scraping, and data extraction, they’re running tracking scripts in the background that gather analytics about you in real time and show your usage patterns, according to the privacy-oriented bookmarking site Pinboard. They can then use those analytics to, you guessed it, court advertisers.
To be clear, tracking scripts are extremely common. They can easily be added to a webpage, and common ones include Google Analytics, which shares your usage patterns and Chartbeat, which tracks your real-time analytics. Just a few of the companies surveilling people on the Times’ page include, Google, Oracle, Chartbeat, Amazon, and, Comscore. According to Ghostly, a service that works to give you control over ads and tracking technologies, other third-party scripts running in the background include BlueKai, Index Exchange, and Double Click.
To the Times’ credit, as part of this package, they also published a piece on how they think about privacy, noting the detriments of digital tracking practices, but recognizing that “all of this journalism was paid for, in part, by The Times’s engaging in the type of collecting, using and sharing of reader data that we sometimes report on.”
The Times used Ghostly to identify the trackers used by different digital publications. USA Today had 100 such trackers, Buzzfeed had 67, and Huffpost had 77. Meanwhile, the Times had 24.
Dedicating a section of their site, time, and resources to issue of privacy is obviously important, but, at the end of the day, the pervasive nature of tracking scripts shows that even for journalism sites, business is business, above all else. And while they’ll report on the services that want your data to better target ads to you, they’re subject to the same market dynamics as the rest of us.
Blockchain may offer a way out of the current advertising model, with projects such as Brave (and its Basic Attention Tokens) working to reward users for their attention, rather than exploit them for it. Plenty of other blockchain advertising start ups show an appetite for trying to shift the advertising dynamic as well. But for now, enjoy being tracked while reading about privacy. Until the model changes, that’s the kind of irony we can expect.