Cookie Madness!

I just don’t understand Julia Angwin’s scare story about cookies and ad targeting in the Wall Street Journal. That is, I don’t understand how the Journal could be so breathlessly naive, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business. It is the Reefer Madness of the digital age: Oh my God, Mabel, they’re watching us!

If I were a conspiracy theorist — and I’m not, because I’ve found the world is rarely organized enough to conspire (and I found this to be especially true of News Corp. when I worked there, at TV Guide) — I’d imagine that the Journal ginned up this alleged exposé as a way to attack everyone else’s advertising business just as its parent company skulks behind its pay wall and surrenders its own ad business. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. That’s why I’m confused.

The story uses the ominous passive voice of newspaper scare stories: “…a Wall Street Journal investigation has found…” As if this knowledge were hiding. Cookies have been around as long as the commercial browser, since October 1994. Or was that 1984?

The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).

The Journal acts as if it has discovered a conspiracy of its own: “Marketers are spying on Internet users — observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.” Gasp! Mabel, hide the kids, the Romans Huns Krauts Commies Marketers are coming!

There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

The Journal does measure its own cookies, finding its site moderate (I count 34 Journal cookies on my new Mac and I don’t use the site often) in what it ominously calls an “exposure index.” Mabel: Bring the Geiger counter!

Well, except the Journal is unique because unlike the other sites the story writes about, the Journal has my personally identifiable information! It has my friggin’ credit card number and name and address and phone number as well as my web behavior and it allows me to be tracked by third parties. The Journal has more information about me than ANY of the sites it warns about. And the Journal is owned by a company some people don’t trust. Hmmm.

It’s a fine thing that the Journal also tells readers how to “avoid prying eyes.” And if enough people do that, then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet as ads everywhere turn into remnant junk (smack the money), reducing revenue for media sites and reducing their content to junk. Hmmmm….

A story like this might also affect policy as the FTC is looking at regulating online advertising and marketing; its chairman, Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress on the topic this very week. Hmmm.

I think the Journal should have told exactly how it places and uses every one of its cookies and beacons and ominous tracking surveillance spying technology. It doesn’t. The story doesn’t even link to the paper’s privacy policy, which says that cookies and beacons and all that scary surveillance/tracking/spying technologies are used at and its affiliates and also by third parties over which the Journal has no control. Opportunity lost.

If I were an advertising-supported site, I’d be aggressively transparent. I’d tell you exactly what we track and what impact that has on what we serve in advertising and content. I’d create an app to read the cookies placed just for you and explain them. I’d give you the chance to correct information. I’d give you the chance to select your own advertising (now that would be valuable). I’d treat this with radical openness.

Otherwise the scare mongers like those regulation-loving, anticapitalist commies at News Corp. will win the day.

: Oh, and I neglected to point out that it was the very same Journal that had the wingnutty story about privacy and RFID tags on our pants, quoting as an expert a woman who thinks that RFIDs are — and I exaggerate not — the work of the devil. What the hell is happening there? Are they going out for drinks too often with their new neighbors at the Post?

: Oh and here’s more scaremongering from the commie Telegraph in London, which equates Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Man, we are in silly season.

: MONDAY: The Journal campaign against digital advertising continues today with a shocking exposé revealing that Microsoft is a business-friendly business that chose not to release its browser with a default that would have killed ad tracking and targeting. Horrors!

Now if the Journal were really a business newspaper still, there’d be no news there. The news would be if Microsoft did not do what was good for revenue.

Here’s a too-metered Microsoft response to the weekend’s follies from the browser team.

  • agree with you about the absurdity of comparing Zuckerberg to Assange.

    I found the WSJ article to be informative and comprehensive to the average consumer, but on the other hand they could do more of a factsheet on benefits of cookies along side the risks.

  • Agree with miten – A really useful article for most. Isn’t the big thing that none of this is opt-in, it’s all hidden? As you propose, radical transparency, would make it more acceptable.
    I personally wipe cookies (including Flash). Always have. If this was all opt-in, I might be more amenable.

    • And when you wipe cookies, you reduce your value as a reader to the site you’re using. It’s like never giving to NPR after listening. Is that you?

      • Atilla

        Gag! You caught me! I have a TV antenna on my roof and mute ads along with deleting cookies all the time! Please don’t arrest me!

        Don’t be such a tool! I am more valuable if Yahoo and Google can track me for ads?

        What a shill you are.

      • James

        Except in the case of NPR you’re putting money into the system, while with cookies you’re not. Otherwise, your argument is solid.

        As one who runs a couple sites that use ads to help offset the costs, I’d much rather people get ads that are important to them, then not, for the same reason I like seeing applicable ads when I visit a site that is ad-supported.

        If it ends up being purely contextual, well, that’s the way it’ll end up.

        Since I can’t reply to the comment, @Atilla: Yes, you are more valuable.

      • Rick

        That is sort of like trying to say that when you pull a tick off your dog you are denying the tick his meal. It is true but……

    • Albin

      It sounds like you feel duty bound to watch every minute of commercial interruption of TV programs instead of recording without them, as proper moral payback for watching it. I’m pretty much with PX – no doubt there is an commercially informative profile of “me” as somebody who uses NoScript, CCleaner etc. and therefore always turns up fresh and unknown at the site.

      • Heh. Well said. Yes, one can get rid of ads but there is an implication for the support of the media one uses.

    • No Jeff, I do give to NPR which IS opt-in. If all the tracking was transparent and opt-in also, I might give them more. Since it isn’t, I opt-out by deleting everything they plant.

      But, I do see the problem for media since their whole revenue structure has been built around advertising. But, that’s their problem, not mine. Personally, if they offered an opt-in program like NPR, I’d probably donate to the ones I think offer value. But that’s the key, “value”, not 10% value and 90% crap.

      If the media continues to rely on advertising, I think they are screwed. They need to provide value that people are willing to pay for just like most companies/businesses.

      • Albin

        You two are articulating the Question of Decade, which roughly corresponds to Google versus Apple models of the future: Apple is dedicated to the replacing the open system of the internet with a fully monetized nickle-and-dime pay-go system that won’t offer anything free. It’s leveraging its hardware to close software to that end. Google more or less stands for monetizing through privacy for marketing. Before this disconcerting fork in the road appeared on the information highway, I’d thought that the ISPs and the Big Three or Four aggregators would end up offering journalism, at least, as a “loss leader”, as journalism always has been, under the print regime that made it’s money from ads and subscriptions. I don’t see why my broadband subscription and my use of aggregator search should include the money-losing increment of public service journalism that the old newspapers or TV networks used to do.

  • Anon

    I think, Mr. Jarvis, you’re dramatically underestimating the level of awareness that can be attributed to the average web surfer. Most have little or no idea the extent to which they’re being tracked online and, indeed, such tracking has truly gotten out of control.

    As to the benefits of online tracking – the internet is attracting more eyes/minute daily. Advertisers are going to pay to place online advertisements regardless of whether they can target them or not. It’s just a question of time.

    • Then don’t you mean *over*estimating?

      • Anon

        Well yes.

  • Marshall

    I’m more apt to agree with you Jeff, though I don’t know what to think about the opt-in question. I do like a good opt-in, but what about those of us who are ad-supported journalists? The bulk of my ad revenue comes from high cpm tech industry ads on our site alone, cookies unimportant. But if I were a political blogger? I’d need that revenue from higher priced targeted ads. I get the feeling that most readers are indifferent to the economic struggles of their content producers. They are just hungry little monsters that would block our ads if it was the easiest thing for them to do, and when I’d write “no new articles today, have to move out osf my foreclosed house” they’d just shrug and figure the arising was never that important to them anyway. Sad

    • Marshall, Jeff:

      First of all, it’s not *just* about cookies. It’s about sophisticated technology, algorithms and massive-scale compute resources that make it possible to *compute* things about “ordinary citizens” that said citizens might not realize *can* be computed, regardless of what they opt into or opt out of.

      It’s about marketers saving money by not having to have a human ask “qualifying questions” during the marketing cycle. I think it’s important that people know as much as possible about what computers can “figure out” from what we tell them. The WSJ article is a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.

      Second, it’s about what the consumer *gets* in exchange for giving up personal information. And personally, I don’t think the *consumer* sees a cost reduction or a quality increase from the “more efficient” data-driven marketing technologies. As far as I can tell, those cost reductions go solely into the corporate coffers.

      Consumers are only seeing cost reductions and quality increases because of the relatively recent emergence of public discussions on blogs, Twitter and other social media channels. When something sounds too good to be true, *millions* of people can chime in and say so. On Twitter, or here on your blog, we can actually call bullshit on News Corp or BP or United Airlines or Intel.

      People are finally able to talk back in *human* terms – not in counts and averages and histograms and multidimensional scaling coefficients. We can talk back about bad service, offshore oil drilling incompetence, privacy leaks, failing brakes or even movies that suck. And we can talk back about cookies. ;-)

      • Edward, agreed on your point about this all being about more than just cookies. The cookie data is merely an input and the context for how it’s being used is also important to understand. Targeting an ad requires one level of sophistication, deciding that my web viewing behavior means I have terrorist aspirations requires a diff level. However, the data collection doesn’t necessarily dictate what use it will be put to, which is why it’s difficult to explain to people the issues around how this data will be used. Today, data collection is being separated fm application. Note, that there are cookie exchanges out there where anyone can bid on access to cookies placed on users. How would one explain to users whether their web traffic data (and other info) ends up in eXelate’s cookie exchange, or how that could be used? Tough one.

        The complexities around these issues are tremendous and while I feel that Jeff is taking an “insider’s” perspective on how this stuff is common knowledge, his point on the disingenuous language choices the WSJ has made in describing all of this, is dead on.

        On your point regarding “cost reductions”, it’s actually revenue generation that the publishers are seeing fm being able to sell targeted ads. For the same content that consumers were getting w/untargeted ads, they now get exactly the same content but w/targeted ads. Now, where some see value in targeted ads, I don’t. Mainly because the methods continue to be crude and frankly the fact that I’m shopping for a car should not make a car ad on some random site I’m visiting, be any more valuable. My research and shopping will determine my car selection, not a random ad for some car I may not care for. Contextual ads have clear value (car insurance ad on a car site), but this doesn’t require knowing who I am nor anything about my web surfing activities. The crudeness of behavioral or psychographic targeting do not currently bring a lot of value to visitors.

      • Jeff, you want publishers to be “aggressively transparent”, but let’s look a little deeper… When publishers use aggregate tracking data, that data is (likely) bound against disclosure protection. In short, they are being backed into a corner where they have to use tracking data to improve revenues, but they cannot tell the public about it because the tech they use is disclosure-locked.

        Talking about “this is what we track” is just a red herring. Let’s have a conversation about “this is what we did with what we tracked”. As in, what we’ve learned, derived, and of course how we’ve monitized what you revealed to us by visiting our site. Seems to be at least part of what the Journal is trying to do (though your madness rap does carry a bit of “sensational” water).

        No the WSJ did not discover something media-techs don’t already understand, but they are revealing what mainstream audiences still don’t, or can’t comprehend.

        Yes, the cookie is just the store. But of late it has transmogrified from its’ “Welcome back friend” roots, to become the public USB thumb drives of our private lives. Everything from browsing history, personal-social-reach and marketplace intentions to your exact location on earth (at this very moment) are now available to web engineers. I seriously doubt audiences understand what they are handing over, or what to do about it.

        Here’s the other big nuance… That snapshot history – that’s my history – those are my snapshots, and the fact that the publishing industry wants to sell my shots to the highest bidder under a not-well-understood arrangement most certainly is an awkward position for publishers.

        What’s going on behind the scenes in publishing is not benign, and merchant-webs don’t inherently deserve access to our data. At this juncture I contend that they can’t even share what they are doing if they want to. Most importantly, audiences and lawmakers are very very far behind on what’s happening on the street, so yes we need more light on these practices.

  • Marshall

    The writing. Plz forgive dumb iPad autocomplete

  • Jeff — As you can imagine, I respectfully disagree with your overall points about our “What They Know” series.

    However, I would like to make one factual correction. We analyzed the’s privacy policy and the privacy policies of all the tracking tools we found on – just as we did with every one of the 50 sites surveyed. Total data set is at, and WSJ info is at

    • Julia,
      I linked to that. It is not a statement from the management of that explains what the site does with collecting data and how it uses my *personally identifiable* information; I would have expected the management of the Journal to have gone above and beyond and explained what it does and not just left it to your “expose.” So I would say that is not at all a “factual correction.” I am saying that I expected management to make a separate reaction to what you did.
      And, yes, we disagree about the story. I’m frankly quite shocked that something so alarmist would come from you. I’d thought better of you.

      • Bystander

        The disconnect between the Journal’s editorial side and its advertising side is a healthy sign of editorial independence there.

      • Andrew Pancer


        My biggest concern about the methodology used to analyze the Top 50 publisher sites is that all services are being lumped in as “trackers”. Cookies/Pixels/Beacons from Doubleclick (ad serving), Gannet (Pointroll – Rich Media) to name a few are being thrown in with “trackers”. These are the services publishers need to run their day to day businesses including the delivery of ads that their own sales teams have sold. They have nothing to do with 3rd party data tracking.

        I like the dialog that WTK has been leading. I am a vocal supporter of self regulation governed by clear notice, choice and transparency. But I do believe that many of the publishers who are being “called out” are not being given a fair shake in this series.


    • Rick


      Keep up the good work. Ignorance is only bliss until the bubble pops.

      You could write something really alarmist by targeting the marketing practices of a sector like Big Pharma. This is an industry that routinely settles billion dollar lawsuits, as quietly it can, for KILLING thousands of people with there marketing strategy. If julia is correct and it is mainly just the quants running this game right now, wait until the psycho-level manipulators move over from TV.

      Here is a place to start your research on BIG PHARMA. Oh thats right they are probably a sacred cow due to the BILLIONS they spend on advertising.


  • Jeff

    The Journal is not naive, but the general public is. Which is why the article is both relevant and important. I have been following and talking stories like this for years, and I can tell you — it never ceases to surprise people I speak with, young or old, educated and not.

  • It’s like on the Christian Easter holiday when the rooster says to the hen,”Quick, Maude! Hide the kids! The rabbit’s coming!” :-D

  • Julia- You would absolutely bug out if you knew what your grocery store knows about you, or your video store, or even your public library.

    I for one think poorly targeted advertising is the real crime.


    • John, grocery stores knows nothing about me since I don’t use loyalty cards. Also, cash is king.

      Unfortunately, most consumers lack education about what’s happening behind the scenes with their data, both online and off, and they lack the tools to counter practices they might find objectionable if they knew about them.

  • I think both sides bring up good points. The take away for me as a webmaster, it to do another article on the various analytics tools I use and data uses. My experience from answering reader questions is they may not be as informed as we think. This is especially true when it comes to newer technologies like flash based cookies.

  • P

    The sum of all fears: Do not buy cookies from the grocery store with Discovery card.

  • I agree that the article is breathless and a bit clueless as is most if not all media reporting on technology. However, the tracking IS creepy and for reasons that go beyond what (supposedly) reputable sites like Google track. The sad fact is that browser security is a running joke in the industry. If your information is being tracked, you have to assume that anyone and everyone has access to it. It’s not just that users don’t follow good practices; there ARE no good practices. Even major sites and ad networks have served malware.

    I couldn’t disagree more with your statement that “if enough people do that [protect their privacy], then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet”. It isn’t true. Advertisers will simply have to become less lazy and work a little harder for their keep.

    As it is right now the state of targeted advertising is incredibly poor, and that’s without the vast majority of users taking measures to protect their privacy. The relevance of most ads is simply nil. I visit gadget blogs and see ads for e-cigarettes. I watch science fiction on Hulu and see ads for – of all things – toilet paper. (Maybe they’re rendering an opinion on the show?) On car blogs I see ads for Domino’s. And on more specialized sites, I get ads for the diet scam of the week. This isn’t the targeted advertising that analytics is supposed to enable, this is the same crude level of targeting that cable TV offers.

    Tracking everywhere I browse isn’t going to do anything to increase relevance if advertisers can’t even do better than “weird old tips” for flat bellies on sites that obviously skew to readers with higher education. More importantly advertisers need to trust the content providers and let them help use their knowledge of their audience to drive targeting. If it takes educating users on how to browse more securely and protect their privacy to make that happen, I’m all for it.

    • Somehow I forgot to snark at the ads with the picture of Melissa Theuriau. I guess she’s lost her job as a news anchor, gotten a divorce, moved to whatever town I’m in, and is now making fill-in-the-blank dollars an hour from home! It doesn’t even matter if I’m using my browser or somebody else’s or how recently I’ve cleared my cookies; I get these all over the Internet. If this is the best that can be done by tracking everywhere I visit, good riddance.

  • Something I’d forgotten to mention is an old-timer’s adage that one should assume everything one does on the WEB is public. That holds just as true to this day as it did before the turn of the recent century. Leo Laporte eloquently restated this with, “Don’t assume that anything you do on the WEB is private.”

  • Bill Green

    I found the article be to be very rudimentary…and, thus, perfect for my father who has some trouble understanding certain elements of technology. I suppose the article gave you some excuse for belittling the WSJ, which was no doubt the purpose.

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  • bob

    Arent you missing something? Yes the style of article was a little over the top. But heres what concerns me about this. This is not really about cookies.

    Think about the basis of cookies and security. They are required to create stateful sessions over HTTP, and they can only be read by the domain that created them.


    Now, you have a business which entire business model is triangulate users by collecting cookie data (apparently through commenting systems as one example) from various websites they visit and combine all the data into a profile based on IP address and sell it to anyone who wants it.

    Thats a black market for data thats not even supposed to exist. And I think it should be illegal.

    • Andy Freeman

      > combine all the data into a profile based on IP address and sell it to anyone who wants it.

      Only a fool would buy profiles based on IP addresses.

      Unless you’re paying extra for a static IP, your IP address changes fairly frequently. As a result, IP based profiles are useless.

      If your field is being affected by a technology, actually knowing said technology might be a good idea. And no, being able to install Word doesn’t imply competence. Neither does knowing the proper use of semi-colons.

  • It seems like my comments has been forgotten. Shall I wrote it again?

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  • To expand on the item above (posted automagically), I think the Journal piece — though it may be anachronistic and wrong about “the basics of the modern media business” — marks a turning point. It says we should and will be creeped out by the degree of following that takes place, and that we need to shed light on the markets for collected data. Because (and this is my point, not the Journal’s) the end-game for the collected data market, which is advertisers, is totally personalized advertising: guesswork just for you, rather than for populations that include you. We’ve always tolerated the latter. We won’t tolerate the former. It’s too personal. So the larger threat here is to a future business model of advertising — and to advertising itself, once better means for engagement between buyers and sellers are found. And they will be. I don’t know what this will mean for modern media (unless they’re included, which I hope they are), but it will mean better business overall, because both buyers and sellers will be engaged directly. One will not merely be a “target” of the other.

    • Rurik Bradbury

      We will tolerate totally personalized advertising, so long as there is transparency (which there will have to be). In a few years, we will think it absurd that we used to see random nonsense in ads, instead of targeted useful information.

    • I don’t know, Doc. The ultimate of this tracking is Amazon, which is transparent; we know the deal. And I get frustrated that Amazon doesn’t give me better recommendations. I want them to be ever better. I want more mechanisms to tell them what I’m interested in so they can give me more targeted picks. They’ll make more money. I’ll be a happier customer. With transparency — the key element — and consent — trickier to do well, as Cory Doctorow says — I don’t think this is a bad picture.

      • Rurik, we’ll just have to disagree on that one.

        Jeff, as I said here — — Amazon ain’t that good anymore, and, far as I know, still the best of the breed. The problem is, they own the whole show within which “mechanisms to tell them what I’m interested in” operate. That’s not a big enough picture. And the bigger picture isn’t cookies and other crap watching your every move, while back-ed services do guesswork about what you might want. That’s a giant kluge.

        The problem to solve isn’t improving selling. it’s improving buying. And that can’t be done only within each seller’s silo. That’s what’s most broken. The buyers need their own tools — ones that work acrosss multiple vendors. And, of course, that’s what I’ve spent the last four years of my life working on at . So have a bunch of other developers. Look at the bulleted points here — — and you can see some of what we’ve been up to.

        • Doc,
          There we agree. That’s what I was coming to at the end: this has to be collaborative. I want to tell the merchant how to alert me better to meeting my needs and if they do they will benefit. The mechanism to do that, the one I describe, is indeed your VRM.

        • Tim Sears

          Transparency is the answer for the industry here. Otherwise, look forward to some blunt force regulation someday. The BlueKai example was good, some others are probably nowhere near as accessible.

          From a functionality standpoint this could also promote intent publishing, putting the user more in control while increasing timeliness and relevance. I have a powerful engine in my pocket that today is underutilized for evaluating offers on my behalf. We need tools where the consumer tells business what it wants.

      • Doc,

        Are you suggesting that something must exist at the consumer end?

        i.e. a software agent or application that follows me around and makes recommendations across silos (shopping, travel, reading, education, etc) and tells me what else i might like out there?

        StumbleUpon is a good example of such a tool.

        But this hardly helps the media industry, especially with respect to getting compensated for the valuable content they provide for free (or freemium: in the ad-supported model).

  • Margaret Owen Thorpe

    …Although I’ve known for a long time that certain sites were using this so-called cleverness – precisely because much of it isn’t very good. When crazy stuff shows up, I know some kind of tracker has been used to grab some info and use it badly. Three examples:

    1) When Google switched to its “New Coke” News page, it, in its tracking wisdom, sent me a “personalized” page when I went looking for news. It gave me three headlines, one of which was about Paris Hilton and another about Lindsey Lohan. Given a choice between reading about them and reading a cereal box, I’ll take the box;

    2) Google’s personalized news page also decided that the local news and weather I must want was about the Dominican Republic and mostly about people who’d been murdered. Why? Because the tracker determined that I live in “Saint Paul”, and it dutifully found “Saint Paul Parish” in the Dominican Republic. I now stick to the WSJ for news. If anyone’s been murdered in my Minnesota alley, I’ll see the body soon enough;

    3) A few years back, I ordered a book from sent to my sister in California as a Christmas present. She is a nurse practitioner. For the next year or two, I received both email and snail mail for “nurse stuff”, including CEU courses in “Advanced Suturing Techniques”. You wouldn’t want me suturing an old teddy bear. The tracker wasn’t smart enough to notice that a) the book wasn’t shipped to me – I just paid for it; b) it was shipped to an address in California 6 days before Christmas. Duh! Who might one suppose does “nurse stuff”.

    Frankly, folks, it’s the stupidity of this tracking activity that worries me. It’s not the advertising that bothers me nearly as much as what will inevitably happen when the various trackers put the wrong info together and destroy people’s credit ratings, load people onto no-fly lists, send law enforcement of one sort or another to our doorsteps.

    My recommendation: lie whenever you can. Visit rich people sites when you’re poor; poor people sites when you’re rich. Old people sites like AARP and Medicare when you’re 23, the Justin Bieber Fan sites when you’re 87. Make the tracking useless – much better than turning the guvmint loose to “regulate” it. It can’t – and it’s likely to get really nasty ideas from trying….

    • Rurik Bradbury

      Why are you so afraid? Targeted advertising is a good thing. It gives you more relevant ads and — more importantly — helps to subsidize the ‘free’ content you enjoy on the internet.

      So far, there is no evidence Google is using this info in an evil way. If they did, then by all means hide your identity. But as of today, you sound like an old person who fears the new reality just because it is new.

      • Just curious, Rurik — are you in the advertising business?

      • Bystander

        If Google “is using this info in an evil way,” how would we ever know? I mean, Jeff Jarvis doesn’t want anyone to alarm us, right? And if someone did alarm us, what if it’s too late?

  • Here again:
    As a defender of transparency (naked sauna for all and everywhere) I would expect you to want the cookies’ action to have the same transparency, Jeff.
    How about giving the choice to be tracked or not. As I mentioned before, we have fidelity cards for mileage or supermarkets with financial compensation.
    Re the comment below, computers are not yet exclusive to one user. Should cookies reveal visited websites to every user? Can’t I visit or purchase online without telling the whole household? Where is my fundamental right of surfing control? As I have already mentioned to you, a major difference between the sauna and the net, apart from the high temperature, is the choice of joining or leaving.
    I don’t think you’d want to stay naked in every sauna in every situation. Would you?
    I am awaiting your answers to my previous questions:

    • Don’t know why but your comment was caught in the spam filter.
      Yes, read my post: I am suggesting radical transparency for cookies and such; that’s my conclusion!

  • fjpoblam

    The simple fact is, that trackers aren’t sophisticated enough to make intelligent choices when targeting ads.

    When I receive an email from my sister about her trip to Bikini, I may not want my 8-year-old son (who uses the same computer) to then see ads about bikini-clad girls.

    When I receive a letter from my friend about his having read the Willa Cather book Death Comes to the Archbishop, I may not want my wife (who uses the same computer) to be bludgeoned by ads for mortuaries right at the moment when her beloved father has died! (And since we are not, shall we say, of the Catholic faith, I may not anyone in our family overwhelmed by ads related thereto.)

    You MAY catch my drift. Or maybe not. GOOG does NOT offer an opt-in or even an opt for targeted advertising on email reading. The statement in the GOOG TOS is simply that one may block cookies or delete them, but the site may not work correctly if one does.

    • fjpoblam

      (The fact of the matter is, GOOG could have the good grace of YHOO in saying something like, “Yahoo!’s practice is not to use the content of messages stored in your Yahoo! Mail account for marketing purposes.”)

  • The Wall Street Journal should be praised for conducting a critically important investigation of a little-understood issue that has significant consequences for the public, both in the U.S. and globally. Not only privacy–but consumer protection related to financial transactions, decisions on health, other personal matters–as well as civil liberty concerns are involved. The press has done a very poor job of covering what most people inside the online ad and media industry know is a huge data collection and targeting `complex.’ There has been a lack of critical analysis addressing this problem–especially from the media. Given there are now two new bills in the House, one just announced in the Senate, and a forthcoming major FTC analysis of the issue, it is time to better inform the public about the widespread use of highly detailed and stealth online data profiling techniques. I applaud the Journal for engaging in serious and responsible investigative journalism. Believe me–they only have covered the tip of data collection digital `arms’ race. For those seeking context outside of this blog, see my: or Or the chapter on online marketing in my book, “Digital Destiny.”

    • I keep seeing this thread in comments that — unlike the savvy commenters here — the vast nation knows nothing of cookies and tracking and targeting. I do not buy that, not for a second. Oh, not everyone may be able to throw around the jargon. But after 16 years of cookies, do you all really believe that the entire nation is ignorant about them? Do you all really think people are so stupid that they, too, have not noticed ad targeting and could not figure out how it came to them? I think this effort at a meme is essentially elitist and insulting.

      • It’s not only about cookies–and you know that. It’s about a unified and ever-evolving data collection and targeting “ecosystem”–that’s the term used by the online marketing industry [which is frequently incorporating neuroscience methods in its ad targeting]. The WSJ story discusses social media analysis, outside databases, and other techniques–in addition to cookies. The research from UPenn and UC Berkeley released last Fall reveals that few Americans understand what’s going on. Online marketers are spending considerable sums focused on selling us mortgages, loans, credit cards, drugs for depression, etc. Don’t you think we should be all working to ensure the public–and policymakers–understand all this? Haven’t we learned from the financial debacle that transparency, disclosure and safeguards are required, esp. for critical consumer transactions? Obviously, we should hear from all sides. But the privacy and consumer groups raising these issues are challenged by a very well-funded DC lobbying effort from the biggest advertisers. That’s why good old-fashioned serious journalism is required. I’m glad that the WSJ has started its series. I hope you will encourage a serious debate on this important area. To not do so would be elitist and insulting to the public– who has lots of stake.

        • I love seeing you in alliance with the Wall Street Journal. Ever think that would happen? See anything wrong with that picture? Want to investigate why a little more?

        • John

          Why all the ad hominem attacks? You’re arguments are strong enough by themselves.

        • Bystander

          Damn good question. I see Jarvis’s work every couple years, as a consequence of it being picked up by some aggregator. There is always an angry undertone. I wonder why.

        • Bystander

          It’s not an “alliance with the Wall Street Journal” to appreciate one of their stories. Good God, come off the ledge.

      • Most people don’t understand what data is collected and how it’s used. They don’t want to be tracked, they want to be able to have data deleted, and they want legal protections:

        • Most people want free beer.

        • Rick

          Thanks to all the beer commercials with scantily clad women running in and out of them.

      • John

        I agree, I think people can tie things together themselves. The opportunity the WSJ had here was to give their readers more background information and details about the process. I think it’s silly that they barely mention the legitimate uses for cookies, and don’t emphasize that cookies are *critical* infrastructure for the web, e.g. authentication. Sites like Facebook and Twitter could never work without cookies (or similar technology). Instead they seed fear, it seeps from the language they choose to use. But hey, as a European I perceive this as the standard MO for American mainstream press.

        • Well-said, John. But don’t we hear similar language from European governments?

        • John

          I think that still depends a lot on the individual countries. Personally I feel that here in The Netherlands the government is actually not strict enough when it comes to privacy-related issues. As a matter of fact recently some incidents have come to light where law enforcement has ignored Dutch privacy regulations…
          I do think that the main-stream press here is more sensible with regards to these kinds of issues. Also, in general reputable press uses more neutral language than what I often see in prominent US publications.

      • John

        Oh, and by the way, soon cookies won’t even be required to personally identify users. A lot of research is being done around browser fingerprinting. Currently it focusses on fraud prevention, but sooner or later ad companies will pick up on it.

      • The People

        “Do you all really think people are so stupid that they, too, have not noticed ad targeting and could not figure out how it came to them? I think this effort at a meme is essentially elitist and insulting.”

        At last, we’ve a champion in a snake-oil provocateur and ancient ivy-walled member of the sheltered ruling class!

        Oh, please, Mr. Jarvis, won’tcha dazzle us further with your transparent Man of the People pandering?

        My God, it’s Bob Dylan 2.0!

        • Ah, but you’re the one claiming to be smarter than the people. Same claims you’ve made for sometime.

      • This is from a note I got from a reader today: “Yesterday I bought a sink at an online discount place after much searching.  Every page I bring up that has advertising is advertising sinks.  Not just sinks, but only sinks just like the one I bought/  Very unsettling.  So, I bought my faucet.  Within nanoseconds, the faucet is in my ads. Now, I know this is how it works, but with what you posted, it is very unsettling.”

        This person probably knows nothing about cookies and how they work. But they know about personalization and how that works. And they find it creepy. And this person is not alone. This is why I wrote that the Journal report marks a turn in the tide, whether or not it’s wrong in its motives or in the particulars.

        Phil Windley of Kynetx (and the former CIO of Utah) gives a presentation with a great “History of e-commerce.” It goes, “1995: The Invention of the Cookie. The End.” His point: there is a limit to how far e-commerce can go when so much of it is paid for by sellers tracking buyers and targeting them with messages.

        Try looking at it this way. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could give cookies to the sellers and their sites, so we could follow them? That’s just a mental exercise, but it’s not far from what Kynetx actually does.

        Another way to look a the whole of e-commerce: It’s just 15 years old. It’s a sophomore in high school. So it’s still early. There is lots of progress yet to be made.

        • Oh, c’mon, it’s not that “unsettling.” Unless one is easily unsettled. OMG they’re pushing sinks on me! Sorry but I’m rather unsympathetic to that kind of talk. Yes, sites should, as I said, be far more transparent and collaborative about the process — they have to learn that it’s in their own interest. But it’s not so mysterious that looking for sinks one is recommended sinks. I honestly do not see the harm or the big deal. It’s heated rhetoric of the sort the WSJ only feeds like a drug dealer to the harm of the rest of the ad-supported media business.

        • Bystander

          The premise of The Journal’s story is as follows:

          “The tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.”

          I don’t think that’s nearly as “heated” as Jeff Jarvis accusing The Journal of acting like a drug dealer. Doctor, heal thyself. If you want to defend the tracking, then do so. But stop foaming at the mouth. We already have Glenn Beck for that.

        • Well, at least I didn’t cry.

        • Eric Gauvin

          Aren’t you (a professor) writing a book about privacy?! I would expect you to have a more in-depth analysis. Instead you just throw a hissy fit.

        • Oh, Eric, and we were getting along for at least a comment.
          My stand is that the piece does not deserve “in-depth analysis.” The point is that the Journal piece was shallow and foolish. I made my point.

        • Bystander

          There wasn’t anything shallow or foolish about the article. What was shallow and foolish was your reaction to it.

  • Could not agree more, unfortunately “we” will all have to live with the over-reaction/fallout from this very poorly though-out article in the WSJ. Just one more reason other than their stupid paywall that I have for all practical purposes remove the Wall Street Journal from my normal reading list, and told Google News to stop showing me (junk) , I mean articles from this Murdoch Rag. Tom

  • Off topic: Jeff, is there a way for you to turn on comment notifications via email? Makes it much easier to follow the conversation, one doesn’t need to constantly return to your site just to see if a conversation has started. Most CMS systems have this option, as does WordPress.

  • ben

    it’s nothing compared to the off-line data selling and targeting.. the catalog and direct-mail business do this 1000x worse.

  • Of course, if you’re publishing a locally focused news site and you’re relying on cookies for your revenue, you’ve got your ad strategy all wrong.

    • Howard, you may at least have frequency caps for serving ads so you can serve more ads to people and be more efficient about them. Cookies, as John says, are useful in may ways.

  • Sometimes when I reply to messages via my WP dashboard, they don’t show up as replies but as new messages, which takes them out of context. Sigh.

    • Mark Vickers

      Ironically, this could be due to a session timeout where the session is tracked via a … cookie!

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  • While overly “scare mongering” (one can as a rule simply exclude 3rd party cookies using browser prefs), Angwin’s story makes an important point. She doesn’t clarify the distinction well enough between “primary” and “third party” cookies. Cookies were originally intended to be used by the domain you’re visiting to keep sessions, store little things, and make life easier. Third party cookies are a different animal: These do have an invasive and potentially malicious quality. It takes very little to discover someone’s identity, triangulate small bits of data, and suddenly know too much about them.

    If an iFrame is hidden in a site which seripticiously plants your browser in another site, you’re being forced to do something you didn’t choose to do. Third party cookies are bordering on this “no opt” situation. By hiding so many services which are javascript script includes (i.e. widgets as opposed to simple, clickable graphics), sites are allowing themselves to be portals to lots of ugly stuff.

    Jeff’s story is too knee-jerk and seems to say “all things web are just good — just deal.” It’d be better if the issues could be clarified and parsed respectfully.

    • Third party cookies have been around since, very early in the ad-supported web, GM insisted on serving its own ads instead of allowing sites to serve them. They’ve also been around since Tacoda invented a system of creating value across sites, which helped those sites (if you look at a travel story on the NYT and then went to, it could serve you a more-valuable travel ad and the NYT would benefit for having created that data point about you). Third-party cookies, like any technology (e.g., email, blog comments) can be abused by bad players. But that doesn’t make the technology bad.

      • Roger Y

        You’re correct that the technology is not bad in and of itself. It does have the potential for misuse and some of us choose not to use it, my choice! I run ad blocking software and block third party cookies and most of the time I block cookies. I know the blocking software isn’t perfect but it is better than none. I had an interesting conversation with a group of friends before I switched to Linux and FireFox. I asked them if they could remember one ad that they saw while surfing the net for the last three days. None of this group could come up with any. I also could not remember one. We went back to some of the sites we had all visited and sure enough there were ads, some targeted and some not. My point is that a certain percentage of people unconsciously tune out the ads. I have now switched this group to FireFox with AdBlock and Google blocking software. I explained this to them and they all wanted their browser locked down. They had no interest in ads whether targeted or not. You may be correct that the average Jane or Joe may have heard of cookies and tracking of their moves but I think a significant percentage don’t know how to avoid it.
        I am in the minority by blocking and if the percentage of people like me goes up and some sites shut down, so be it. My life will go on without them. As an individual I think I have the right to control at least some of my Internet life. You seem to have a fanboy attitude when it comes to Google. Are you somehow privy to what goes on behind the scenes? I doubt it! The difference between the Buzz fiasco and the Facebook one was the amount of time it took Facebook to allow users to lock down. I can’t prove it but I’m not buying Google’s claim that they didn’t know what they were doing when they released Buzz. Either way I don’t belong to them. If you are comfortable having you’re information all over the net that does not make you right or wrong and wanting to restrict my information does not make me right or wrong. It’s an individual choice which I think I have a right to. Arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong on the issue is a waste of time since we do have the ability to block ads and third party cookies.
        I am in the minority by blocking and if the percentage of people like goes up and some sites shut down, so be it. My life will go on without them. As an individual I think I have the right to control at least some of my Internet life. You seem to be a fanboy attitude when it comes to Google. Are you somehow privy to what goes on behind the scenes? I doubt it! The difference between the Buzz fiasco and the Facebook one was the amount of time it took Facebook to allow users to lock down. I can’t prove it but I’m not buying Google didn’t know what they were doing when they released Buzz. Either way I don’t belong to either one. If you are comfortable having you’re information all over the net that does not make you right or wrong and wanting to restrict my information does not make me right or wrong. It’s an individual choice which I think I have a right to. Arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong on the issue is a waste of time since we do have the ability to block ads and third party cookies.

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  • Doc’s point is spot-on. Advertising is dying a slow death. I hear echos of Wharton’s Eric Clemons.

    Also, what about WSJ’s Jason Fry? How does his analysis of content farms, domaining, etc. factor in? I think it does.

    “If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media… You know the old joke about the sign that reads Good, Fast, Cheap — Pick Two? Demand Media took that and turned it into an irony-free business plan. The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.”

    WSJ’s Jason Fry

  • Bystander

    I thought the Journal’s story was informative. As a result, I downloaded a few privacy protection programs that they recommended. I knew about cookies, and had installed programs to defeat them, but I didn’t know about beacons or “flash cookies.”

    Apparently Jeff Jarvis doesn’t want me to know about these things. Why is that, anyway? What do you have against people who want to guard their privacy on line?

  • John

    Off-topic: Threading doesn’t seem to work well in the reactions…

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  • Bystander

    One other thing, Mr. Jarvis. If you are really for transparency, then you should logically be on The Journal’s side, even if you have misgivings about the article’s tone. It is abundantly clear that the on-line tracking industry is anything BUT transparent.

    • I do argue for transparency; read the post. But I also argue for sense.

  • Bystander

    Here’s a better way: Give people a property interest in their personal data, and require the various agents to pay them for it.

    • There was an effort to create a platform to enable people to pay for their attention. Didn’t go anywhere, but an interesting idea. I’m trying to remember the name of it.

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  • That could be helpful:


  • Sam Beckett (Seb_or_Sam)

    Breaking News: The Wall Street Journal has discover the internet! Oh my god, the internet as… Adevrtising! And advertising uses cookies! Wow! Maybe next week thet’ll discover what this myserious “link”thing is all about!
    Honestly, I lost the last wavering thread of respect I had left for the Wall Street Journal. And that’s been going down rapidly since Murdoch bought WSJ. Do you realize just how deep of a grave they’ve been digging themselves? Compare the journal as it was maybe 5 or 6 years ago to what they are today It’s absolutely pathetic.

  • AdGuy2010

    There was no investigation as to whether the WSJ uses BT data to better target their ads (they do). They leverage 3rd party data as well as use retargeting. It’s a known fact that any WSJ sales rep would share. That was conveniently left out of the story.

    So, in addition to charging their readers for content, they are also extracting more revenue from them in the form of targeted advertising, ensuring that their reporters are “well fed to bite the hand that feeds.”

    At least MSN is “free”.

  • dleary

    Jeff, you forgot “the Marketers eat babies!”

  • It’s the follow up such as that from CNN today that was scary. Using the word SPYING – never going to help an industry’s cause with the FTC.

    As a side note, if you are business looking for a way to ‘manage’ all these pixels and make it easy to ‘not serve them’ to individuals who choose – do look at a Tag/Pixel Management system.

  • Rick

    I think I just figured it out. The WSJ wants to kill the Tracking model so they can keep the traditional mass advertising feed alive behind their paywall. Sneaking these capitalists.

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  • Stan Hogan

    I enjoyed the WSJ article. Perhaps it’s more alarmist than it needs to be, but I didn’t read it that way. Web futurists who expect technological tools to open intimate access to users should worry about knowledge of these practices being spread.

    Most people don’t give up their privacy if they have an option. Cutting off access, which is possible, endangers further already flawed business models.

  • The amount of condescension in this post makes your argument seem lazy.

    • Take me, take my voice. It’s my attitude about what they did and I say so.

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  • P Cause

    While those living in the web world for years may understand all of this, the average user has ZERO understanding of what is collected and how pervasive the data collection and tracking is. This article does a public service in informing people about what is being collected that they cannot see. We need an honest debate on this topic and the advertisers and publishers have hidden this and downplayed the issue. They have made claims that by putting a random number to track you the tracking is anonymous and we know that this is a white lie at best.

    We need more transparency and openness about how our privacy is being violated. It shouldn’t be up to the publishers/advertisers to unilaterally decide what the value of our privacy ought to be or even that it has a price.

    • P
      I have more respect for the “average user.” We build a market and a democracy on them. They’re smarter than you think.

      Privacy? What privacy? It’s your browser’s privacy: a unique number, no name, says you looked at cars. BFD. That is the price of free content. Except at the Journal, that is.

  • Laura McGann

    This line is scary:

    There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

    We need more explanatory journalism, not less. Only covering things that are “new” gets us “this piece of micro-news happened today” stories.

    • Laura,
      It’s not explanatory journalism. It’s agenda journalism. Worse, business agenda.

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  • Paul Davies

    The WSJ piece was very timely considering another of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, the Times, has just gone behind a pay wall. Just as Murdoch is making moves to kill off the free web and make us pay up front, another of his publications suddenly writes a series of hysterical articles that are blatantly designed not to inform, but to scaremonger.

    Shame on you, Julia Angwin, you’re a disgrace to journalism. If these ads really are so damaging, perhaps you’ll be willing to publicly donate the portion of your salary that came from targeted ads to charity?

    If Murdoch really wants to play this game, perhaps the debate over cookies could be easily resolved by publishers coming together and offering the following model:

    – users who accept cookies in the knowledge they’ll receive targeted ads get the content for free

    – users who refuse to accept cookies are directed to a Murdoch style pay wall so they can pay for the content

    Personally, I’d happily go for the targeted ads every time. I only find ads annoying when they’re irrelevant to my interests and I have enough faith in my own judgement to only buy things I want or need.

    The web is wonderful when it’s free – it’s better for our democracies and the economically disadvantaged can have access the same content that everyone else can. Killing off online advertising will kill off the best of the free internet, and all because some privacy nuts didn’t properly understand the issue.

    All that said, I think transparency is a major issue and publishers and the online marketing industry should go much further in explaining what these technologies actually do. If people understood it better, they’d realise there’s nothing to fear.

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  • Love this post, Jeff. The Wall Street Journal is one of the few remaining media brands that employs a paywall and therefore collects personally identifiable information (PII) online. In addition to the 60 or so tracking tags that collect user data on their pages, the Journal also collects PII and has the ability to marry this information with the non-PII that is gathered by these 60-odd companies.

    In the Journal’s own 3,200-word privacy policy, it admits that it combines PII and non-PII, but only when explicit consent is given at the point of collection. It also makes clear that it will “send you to items we think you will find interesting, based on your prior online activities and preferences.” That’s fine, albeit that it’s cognitively dissonant, given their series. But at least they disclose it.

    Here’s the fun part – the irony: Among all the sites it mentions in the series, *only* the Wall Street Journal has the ability to aggregate readers’ PII and sell it to their advertisers. According to their privacy policy, which hasn’t been updated since 2008, they do that and more.

    It’s difficult to glean what the extent of the “more is,” and obviously, none of this serious privacy stuff was referenced in their series.

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  • Jeff, I’m noticing evidence of an organized response to the WSJ hysteria. Your blog and others like it that focus on industry specific conversation are being inundated with flames about spying and other nefarious activities from what seems like a wider audience. Are you seeing a traffic spike in visitor outside your normal readership?

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  • David

    Gawrsh! If’n we cain’t trust them big innernet compnies, who cain we trust?

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  • I agree with your paragraph saying that the key for advertisers is to be more open about what information they’re gathering and how they are using it. That’s why I’m working with Doc Searls on Emancipay (, a system to help advertisers deliver that kind of information in a convenient form that lets people decide what to do about it.

    For me, tracking isn’t the major nuisance issue—I think most people are comfortable with a reasonable amount of tracking of their web browsing, which is why we’ve created Eyebrowse (, a tool that lets you publish the “public” part of your web browsing activity where everyone, not just advertisers, can see it. After all, why should _only_ advertisers get that tracking stream, when it can be useful for so many things?

    On the other hand, I hate the clutter caused by ads, and would much rather pay not to see them, as I do with e.g. Slashdot’s subscribe-to-avoid-ads model. And for that, we’ve created Tipsy (, a tool that lets users offer voluntary micropayments for web content without the hassle of subscribing to every imaginable content provider.

    • zeroday1

      I respectfully disagree with your ideology. I’m sorry but to make statements for the majority when you can’t even cite actual statistics about said majority is just plain superfluous.
      Just like the stupid junk that arrives in peoples mail when one notices after using their debit or credit card at a particular store, that all of a sudden their getting flyers in the mail from that store as well as from other affiliates of that store—all without expressed written consent of the consumer!
      Do these retailers stop you while making a purchase to ask your permission, “Would you like to receive advertising from us and for us to share your personally identifiable information with every (Tom, Dick & Harry) in the advertising industry just so that we can ensure that you will continue to buy from us and support our filthy-rich business buddies we frequently meet with behind closed doors?
      Please—give me a break. I don’t know anyone personally whom enjoys hearing that their privacy is being violated—and that really is the point here—whether or not one would like to believe that these underhanded tactics by this industry are justified or not.
      We the people, have a right to protect our personally identifiable information and these advertising bullies of companies should not get a reprieve just because they have rich friends whom can influence the powers that be, that they are a necessary evil—because really they are not necessary.
      I highly doubt that if the FTC, DOJ and others like that start clamping down on companies like Dominos for requiring users to allow behavior-based cookies, cleverly disguised as ad-tracking cookies, before one can order a stinking pizza from them, that they would all of a sudden lose so much business that it would be the end of them as we know it.
      Please, that is just complete nonsense. I know many people whom are quite fed up with all the dis-information being perpetrated upon us common people, lest we discover what’s really going on with our personal information.
      Again, it is our personal information and we the consumer have every right to protect it and to keep it from being pilfered by companies whom wish to instill so many images into our minds throughout our waking lives, that even when we dream, we can’t get away from this ridiculous onslaught of totalitarian ideas.
      Its all about the money and keeping the rich, richer at the expense of the poor and the disadvantaged and those whom might not know any better because they’re told, “its good for you.”
      What freedoms are we going to concede next, our privacy to sit on the toilet?
      In an era, where identity theft is fast becoming the next big scourge on our society, we are right to a scrupulous mindset on such matters and should be free to protect ourselves in this regard without being subjected to harsh rule-sets which only serves to take our ability to consume away lest we give up our privacy. That is total nonsense period.
      How many more of these security breaches do we have to endure before we wake up and realize that it is a hard but necessary fight to protect our information and we will protect it if we so desire.

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