NEW YORK (
) -- These days, it's not enough for an online retailer to sell you merchandise -- now it feels the need to gather intelligence on you while you're there and follow you out of the virtual store to beg you to come back.
Online retailers are among the many Web sites that gather their users' personal data and track browsing habits for their own purposes, and most also make use of third-party tracking software that uses your browsing habits on one site to create targeted ads on another. When it comes to retail, that often takes the form of "retargeting" -- a tracker on a retail site will set a cookie when you leave and suddenly ads for it will appear everywhere you go. (In some cases the ads will be product-specific -- do a search for flash drives on the site, and suddenly you'll see ads all over the Web encouraging you to go back and buy some flash drives.)
A few e-commerce sites distinguish themselves as more respectful of your privacy.
But every Web site, retail or otherwise, is different: Some have more consumer-friendly privacy policies than others, and some use third-party tracking software that does a better job of keeping user data anonymous and honoring opt-out requests. To keep them all straight, the new privacyscore.com has devised a metric to rate hundreds of sites across the Web on 0-100 scale.
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Read on for the top-scoring major online retailers based on privacyscore's methodology.
One third-party tracking service,
, shows up on 99% of the site's pages. But the service gets high marks across the board: It protects user anonymity, gives consumers the option to opt out, retains data for just 12 months, and adheres to the privacy guidelines of the Network Advertising Initiative and Digital Advertising Alliance. In other words, the third-party trackers on the Gap.com generally go about their business in a responsible way.
While it loses some points for failing to confirm vendor confidentiality (that is, promising that their service providers will behave when they have access to your data),
makes up for it by sticking primarily with consumer-friendly third-party trackers such as the Google Display Network.
distinguishes itself by doing very little in the way of third-party tracking. Only one company, CoreMetrics, was found to be engaging in such tracking on Costco.com. And while CoreMetrics gets middling grades from privacyscore for holding onto data for more than 48 months and not being subject to industry oversight, its presence isn't felt much on the site: It showed up just 9% of the time in privacyscore's tests.
Like Costco, there's very little in the way of third-party tracking on this site. Only two trackers, SpecificMedia and Google Display Network, showed up in the privacyscore scans, and neither was a prominent presence on the site. And given that both services get high marks for their data practices, AutoPartsWarehouse.com gets a perfect 50 on that side of the equation.
uses a dozen different trackers on its site, but only one, Media Innovation Group, is a very prominent presence. Fortunately, MIG is one of the good guys, itself getting 49 out of 50 possible points in
of the company.
, which has a perfect privacy score.
is another site aimed at creative types, serving as a marketplace for art and other homemade wares. According to privacyscore, it does not appear to use third-party trackers to gather users' browsing data, earning it a coveted perfect 50 on that end of the equation.
The most respectful online retailer:
Interestingly, that's an area where even the best Web sites tend to fall short -- it seems that very few sites will tell you if the government wants a peek at your data.
"We think it's reasonable for users to expect to be told if the government comes asking for personal data," says Jim Brock, founder of privacyscore parent company
. "Of course, a user can't expect a site to violate the law in doing so, but a site can and should promise to keep them informed when they can do so legally."
On the other end of the spectrum were a few online retailers who failed to make the grade when it comes to their privacy and third-party tracking policies. Some of the worst offenders were
(privacy score: 31), which gets punished for its use of poorly rated trackers such as Baynote and Proclivity.
The worst of the worst, though, was
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