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By JULIA ANGWIN, nline.wsj.com / AUGUST 18, 2011.
Major websites such as MSN.com and Hulu.com have been tracking people's online activities using powerful new methods that are almost impossible for computer users to detect, new research shows.
The new techniques, which are legal, reach beyond the traditional "cookie," a small file that websites routinely install on users' computers to help track their activities online. Hulu and MSN were installing files known as "supercookies," which are capable of re-creating users' profiles after people deleted regular cookies, according to researchers at Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley.
Websites and advertisers have faced strong criticism for collecting and selling personal data about computer users without their knowledge, and a half-dozen privacy bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill this year.
Many of the companies found to be using the new techniques say the tracking was inadvertent and they stopped it after being contacted by the researchers.
Mike Hintze, associate general counsel at MSN parent company Microsoft Corp., said that when the supercookie "was brought to our attention, we were alarmed. It was inconsistent with our intent and our policy." He said the company removed the computer code, which had been created by Microsoft.
Hulu posted a statement online saying it "acted immediately to investigate and address" the issues identified by researchers. It declined to comment further.
The spread of advanced tracking techniques shows how quickly data-tracking companies are adapting their techniques. When The Wall Street Journal examined tracking tools on major websites last year, most of these more aggressive techniques were not in wide use.
But as consumers become savvier about protecting their privacy online, the new techniques appear to be gaining ground.
Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, identified what is known as a "history stealing" tracking service on Flixster.com, a social-networking service for movie fans recently acquired by Time Warner Inc., and on Charter Communications Inc.'s Charter.net.
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