An online advertising company has
agreed to stop gathering sensitive data from millions of consumers and will
cease its secret “history sniffing” activities, which revealed the websites users
had visited in the past.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that Epic
Marketplace, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Epic Media Group, LLC, gathered
data from customers relating to fertility issues, impotence, menopause,
incontinence, disability, insurance, credit repair, debt relief, and personal bankruptcy
only information on consumer visits to websites within the Epic network.
Epic purchases advertising space on websites and contracts
with advertisers to place their advertisements on over 45,000 websites. Epic determines which advertisements to show
by tracking the consumer’s online activities.
The FTC found that Epic not only tracked customers based on
their visits to websites within Epic’s network, but it also used a program that
allowed it to “sniff” browser history to determine which other websites consumers
visited, including 54,000 domains outside Epic’s network. This information could be obtained only by
using the secret history sniffing program.
Once Epic obtained the browsing history, it assigned the user to an
interest segment for targeting its advertising.
The categories included “incontinence,” “arthritis,” “memory
improvement,” and “pregnancy-fertility getting pregnant.”
“History sniffing circumvents the most common and widely
known method consumers use to prevent online tracking: deleting cookies,” the FTC said in its
complaint. “Deleting cookies does not
prevent a website from querying a consumer’s browsing history. Consumers could only protect against history
sniffing by deleting their browsing history and using private browsing mode,
or, with regard to Epic’s history sniffing, opting out of receiving targeted
advertisements from Epic.”
Epic and the FTC entered into a consent decree. The FTC is accepting public comments until
January 7, 2013, after which time it will determine whether to make the decree
In the Matter of Epic
Marketplace, Inc., and Epic Media Group, LLC, FTC File No. 1123182.