The Secure Times

An online forum of the ABA Section of Antitrust Law's Privacy and Information Security Committee

FTC Settles Online “History Sniffing” Charges

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The FTC announced yesterday that it has settled charges that the online advertising network Epic Marketplace Inc. used “history sniffing” to secretly and illegally gather data from millions of consumers about their interest in sensitive medical and financial issues.

Epic’s online advertising network – which has a presence on 45,000 websites – serves as an intermediary between online content publishers and advertisers.  Although Epic’s privacy policy claimed that it would collect information only about consumers’ visits to sites within its network, according to the FTC complaint this was not in fact the case.  Instead, the complaint alleges that from March 2010 through August 2011 consumers who visited Epic’s network sites received a cookie which tracked consumer site visits outside its ad network, including some sites relating to personal health conditions and finances.  The complaint further alleges that data collected from these cookies enabled Epic to serve targeted ads to these consumers.  The FTC complaint charges that these practices violated 5(a) of the FTC Act by falsely representing to consumers that Epic only collected information on consumers’ visits to websites within the Epic network.

The FTC consent order in the matter bars Epic from using history sniffing and requires that it delete and destroy all data collected using it, among other things.  The order was placed on the public record for thirty days.

The FTC announced the settlement on the eve of today’s “Future of Comprehensive Data Collection” workshop to explore the practices and privacy implications of comprehensive data collection about consumers’ online behavior.

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Author: Abigail Slater

Abigail Slater: Abigail Slater is a member of the New York Bar and a Solicitor in England and Wales. She is currently employed as an antitrust attorney by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington D.C. Prior to the FTC, she worked in several offices of the international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. All views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the FTC or any individual Commissioner.

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