Dictionary.com dubs ‘privacy’ their word of the year. But visiting their homepage sets 90 cookies.

December 18, 2013

How many third-party sites are connecting through Dictionary.com on an initial visit to the homepage today. (Lightbeam)

Dictionary.com has chosen their word of the year: Privacy. Among the reasons for their choice, the online dictionary cited recent NSA surveillance program revelations. But it also has a ring of irony due to the site's particularly robust consumer-tracking efforts.

A 2010 Wall Street Journal investigation into online tracking reported Dictionary.com placed 159 "third-party" tracking cookies — the most of any Web site studied. Those third-party cookies help create robust profiles of a computer with a unique identifier that can then be sold to advertisers.

Dictionary.com also had the most "beacons" of any site they examined. Beacons are a small pieces of software that track what a user is doing on a Web page, like what they type or where the mouse moves. According to the Journal, Dictionary.com included 41 of these programs at the time, "including several from companies that track health conditions and one that says it can target consumers by dozens of factors, including Zip code and race."

Today, just visiting the homepage of Dictionary.com sets 90 cookies and replicating the method from the Wall Street Journal investigation (including reading the blogpost on "privacy" being the word of the day) yields 198 cookies, according to The Washington Post's research. Additionally, Firefox plugin Lightbeam shows an initial visit to Dictionary.com connects a visitor to 35 third-party sites — and subsequent revisits to the site or visiting other pages would likely yield even more trackers. This behavior isn't unusual: In fact, The Washington Post similarly connects visitors to third-party services.

But considering recent evidence that the NSA piggybacks on commercial tracking practices to enable surveillance and exploitation practices, Dictionary.com's choice of privacy and its citing of the "Edward Snowden scandal" is all the more interesting ...

Soltani is an independent security researcher and consultant.

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