Web tracking firm, Compete, settles charges for illegally collecting sensitive user data

I recently read an article published by Ars Technica, one of my favorite websites for tech news, education, and product reviews, as a part of a school assignment and wanted to post my thoughts. I’ve found that Ars Technica is one of the more intelligent and educational technology blogs that exist, which is very refreshing in a web full of tech blogs that want your clicks and try to attract you with gimmicky headlines and juicy gossip. The article is titled "Web tracking firm settles charges it collected passwords, financial data" and recounts the recent happenings surrounding Compete Inc. and their abuse of data tracking, lawsuit, and subsequent settlement. The article was published on 10/22/12 and can be found at http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/10/web-tracking-firm-settles- charges-it-collected-passwords-financial-data/.

The Massachusetts-based company had agreed to obtain end users’ consent before collecting future data on their browsing history, and had also agreed to anonymize customer data. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed charges against Compete relating to a toolbar that gave consumers “instant access” to information about the websites they visited, as well as a second software package called the Consumer Input Panel that gave consumers the opportunity to win rewards for expressing opinions about products and services. Both software packages did more than they advertised, said the FTC. "In fact, Compete collected more than browsing behavior or addresses of webpages," FTC lawyers wrote in a civil complaint filed in the case. "It collected extensive information about consumers' online activities and transmitted the information in clear readable text to Compete's servers. The data collected included information about all websites visited, all links followed, and the advertisements displayed with the consumer was on a given webpage."

Compete began collecting credit card numbers, social security numbers, and other sensitive data as early as January 2006, and has now agreed to settle up with the charges made against them. The article does not list an amount that Compete must pay, or any other details on what their penalty will be, or what will be done with the data sitting in Compete’s databases, but it does say that Compete will settle.

This article describes a situation that unfortunately is somewhat common. In some cases, the company is identified and brought to court, in other cases it likely goes undetected. All internet users should be aware of the risks of using technology, and specifically in using third-party tools in addition to their web browser. We should be wary of unneeded plug-ins, toolbars, widgets, and other applications that serve a minute purpose and have little industry credibility. In my opinion, trusting company’s like Google and Facebook is a much safer approach to protecting your data and you identity online, because these industry leaders are extremely transparent in how their manage end-users’ data and are increasingly under the microscope in terms of what they do with that data. This scrutiny helps create strict policies and regulations that help protect our data.