BuzzFeed denies collecting personal data from users

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

BuzzFeed is collecting far more data about its readership than the majority of other news sites, a blogger has claimed.

According to ecommerce expert Dan Barker, writing on his blog, alongside the out-of-the-box analytics Google provides, BuzzFeed has actively decided it requires more information on users, thus classified as ‘Custom Var’.

So far this only covers such mundane information such as whether the user links BuzzFeed to Facebook and whether email updates are enabled. Yet Barker asserts that the social news site is keeping information of a much more secret, personal nature – for example, on quiz articles.

Barker cites the quiz article ‘How Privileged Are You?’, which at the time of writing had garnered over two million views. If you click on any of the answers to the quiz – which include options such as ‘I have never been raped’ and ‘I have never attempted suicide’ – BuzzFeed will log the following:



To translate, the most important figures here are the numbers; ‘ol:1218987’ is the quiz ID, and ‘1219024’ is the answer the user checked.

The overall effect is a mind-boggling amount of data logged. Barker adds that BuzzFeed wouldn’t have foreseen they’d be recording such personal data when they set up the tracking, however he notes: “This is just a single example, but I suspect this particular quiz would have had less than two million views if everyone completing it realised every click was being recorded and could potentially be reported on later.”

BuzzFeed VP growth and data Dao Nguyen refuted these claims, saying that the information is logged but is not personally identifiable.

“The string sent to [Google Analytics] is not your username but an anonymised string that is not linked in any way to your account, email address or other personally identifiable information,” she wrote, adding that “about 99%” of BuzzFeed’s readers are not logged in.

“We are only interested in data in the aggregate form”, she continued. “Who a specific user is and what he or she is doing on the site is actually a useless piece of information for us.

“We know how many people got Paris or prefer espresso in the ‘which city would you live in’ quiz, but we don’t know who they are or any of their PII (personally identifiable information).”

BuzzFeed’s privacy policy is pretty open about the fact they will collect certain data and use it for targeted advertising. They’re certainly not the only news organisation to do that. However, even if they’re not logging data, it still represents a warning sign over how users are treating identity across the internet.

What’s your view?

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