Big ad network that secretly sniffed users’ online habits settles with FTC

FTC says Epic looked for some highly sensitive, personal search information

The Federal Trade Commission today said it settled charges with a large online ad company the agency said secretly and illegally gathered data from millions of consumers who had looked up sensitive medical and financial issues ranging from fertility and incontinence to debt relief and personal bankruptcy.

The FTC settlement is hardly harsh though as it only bars the company, Epic Marketplace Inc., from continuing to use history sniffing software, which lets online operators to "sniff" a browser to see what sites consumers have visited in the past.  It also bars future misrepresentations by Epic and requires the company to destroy information that it gathered unlawfully.

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According to the FTC Epic is a large advertising network that has a presence on 45,000 websites.  Consumers who visited any of the network's sites were sent a  cookie that stored information about their online practices including sites they visited and the ads they viewed.  The cookies allowed Epic to serve consumers ads targeted to their interests, a practice known as online behavioral advertising.  

In its privacy policy, Epic claimed that it would collect information only about consumers' visits to sites in its network.  However, according to the FTC, Epic was employing history-sniffing technology that allowed it to collect data about sites outside its network that consumers had visited, including sites relating to personal health conditions and finances.  

According to the FTC complaint, the history sniffing was deceptive and allowed Epic to determine whether a consumer had visited any of more than 54,000 domains, including pages relating to fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief, and personal bankruptcy.   The FTC complaint alleges that depending on which domains a consumer had visited, Epic assigned the consumer an interest segment, including categories such as "Incontinence," "Arthritis," "Memory Improvement," and "Pregnancy-Fertility Getting Pregnant."  Epic used these categories to send consumers targeted ads.

"Consumers searching the Internet shouldn't have to worry about whether someone is going to go sniffing through the sensitive, personal details of their browsing history without their knowledge," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.  "This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers' confidence, and we won't tolerate it."

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