The post calls to mind a two-year-old episode in which Facebook was found to be surfacing user data through referral URLs, allowing third parties – RapLeaf was frequently mentioned – to "scrape" ID numbers and then link them to its own database, which it then sells to advertisers and others. The data leakage, which Facebook acknowledged but said was inadvertent, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal (Oct 2010 story) and was among the first digital privacy investigations in the paper's "What They Know" series.
In concluding his post Mayer scoffs at the notion of anonymous data tracking online:
"The greatest takeaway is that the myth of web tracking’s anonymity has proven remarkably resilient—despite compelling research results and practical experience to the contrary. Companies and trade groups in the tracking business community frequently invoke unfounded claims of anonymity. Policymakers, website operators, and journalists all-too-often repeat those claims—even, apparently, when they’re of the highest caliber."
The report comes in the wake of an Oct. 28 New York Times story detailing the rise of online data gathering and retargeting efforts by the presidentials campaigns. Reporters Natasha Singer and Charles Duhigg used information from Evidon's Ghostery browser plug-in to identify tracking tags on both candidates' sites. BarackObama.com was host to 76 tracking tags in September, and MittRomney.com had 40.
Mayer is the West Coast equivalent to Ben Edelman, the Harvard associate professor who has dedicated his post-graduate life to tracking fraudulent and privacy-abusive advertising. But whereas Edelman has spent considerable time on risks to advertisers, Mayer's focus is primarily dedicated to the consumer privacy issue. He worked with Federal Trade Commisision consultant (formerly its chief technologist) Ed Felten on the report.