Ye Olde Soapbox

How a Lone Grad Student Scooped the Government and What It Means for Your Online Privacy

Jonathan Mayer (Peter McCollough/ Wired)

by Peter Maass
ProPublica, June 28, 2012, 6:30 a.m.

 

June 28: This story has been corrected.

This story was co-published with Wired.

Jonathan Mayer had a hunch.

A gifted computer scientist, Mayer suspected that online advertisers might be getting around browser settings that are designed to block tracking devices known as cookies. If his instinct was right, advertisers were following people as they moved from one website to another even though their browsers were configured to prevent this sort of digital shadowing. Working long hours at his office, Mayer ran a series of clever tests in which he purchased ads that acted as sniffers for the sort of unauthorized cookies he was looking for. He hit the jackpot, unearthing one of the biggest privacy scandals of…

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