San Francisco-based "tracking company" RapLeaf probably has an "extraordinarily intimate" dossier about you—one that potentially includes your income range, your politics, and your "interests" in topics like "adult entertainment." And it might all be under your real name.
According to The Wall Street Journal, RapLeaf, which started as a "trust meter" intended to allow people to rate each other's trustworthiness—not unlike Ebay's seller ratings—is now one of the most "sophisticated players" in the world of online tracking companies, which compile and sell information about internet users to advertisers. And by "sophisticated," of course, we mean "creepy."
Why? Well, we've had our eyes on RapLeaf for a while. Where most tracking companies keep their files anonymous—that is, they know where you go online, but not who you are, specifically—RapLeaf knows your name. And it's using it to cross-reference everything from voter-registration databases to social networking sites, and finding out a lot about people.
Data gathered and sold by RapLeaf can be very specific. According to documents reviewed by the Journal, RapLeaf's segments recently included a person's household income range, age range, political leaning, and gender and age of children in the household, as well as interests in topics including religion, the Bible, gambling, tobacco, adult entertainment and "get rich quick" offers. In all, RapLeaf segmented people into more than 400 categories, the documents indicated.
The company, speaking in its own defense, also says that it "strips out" identifying details like names and email addresses when it sells its files. But—as the Journal pointed out last week—it's (apparently mistakenly) including data that could be used to personally identify you, like your Facebook or MySpace ID number.
How does it work? Essentially, when you visit a site that partners with RapLeaf and enter your email address (or other identifying information), RapLeaf looks you up in its database, finds your file, and transmits it—or certain segments of it—to the site via a cookie. Theoretically, this allows the site to "personalize" content, or, more importantly, advertising.
More importantly—how do you make it stop? For starters, stop visiting sites that are known to partner with RapLeaf, including:
But if you really want RapLeaf to stop tracking you, you can "opt out" of their "service" on their website. (At least, I'm assuming that actually works.)
Of course, RapLeaf is just one particularly nosy example of these companies. It's not easy to avoid being tracked online, for better or worse—and it may only be a matter of time before your name being part of your file becomes standard practice in the industry. Until then, you'll have to be content in the knowledge that RapLeaf has stopped keeping track of how much money you have, or whether your read the bible.