Tag Archives: Wired.com

Breach Brief – Exactis

Who is Exactis and what do they know about me? That is the question you need to be asking.  No, you haven’t heard of Exactis but they may have exposed some of your most personal information to hackers. You, along and the everybody else in the U.S.

Exactis is a major data gathering company based in Palm Coast, FL. The Exactis website describes the company as a compiler and aggregator of business and consumer data. Exactis claims to have a store of information it refers to as a “universal data warehouse” that contains 3.5 billion consumer, business and digital records. Exactis claims these records are updated monthly. According to Exactis’ LinkedIn profile it is a privately owned company with only 10 employees. Exactis gathers this information from cookies on personal computers. credit and debit transaction records and other sources.

Now you should ask what do they know about me? The exposed records contains more than 400 different characteristics that include whether the person smokes, what their religion is and whether they have dogs or cats. But, according to Wired.com some of the information is inaccurate or outdated.

Your next question is; how did this happen? According to security researcher Vinny Troia the company leaked the data of 340 million individuals by storing it on an unsecured server accessible through the internet. According to Wired.com Troia discovered what he describes nearly two terabytes of data. 

Troia reported the data breach to both Exactis and the FBI. Exactis reacted by securing the data so that it’s no longer accessible.

But now ask; did criminals know this? Did they access the information? The answer to that question is unknown. But since Exactis has not admitted to the data breach and it is no longer accessible no one really know how many people are affected. According to Wired.com Troia found two versions of the database each holding an estimated 340 million records. This number breaks down into 230 million consumers records  and 110 million on business contacts.  

But Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the non-profit Electronic Privacy Information Center said,  “The likelihood of financial fraud is not that great , but the possibility of impersonation or profiling is certainly there. Rotenberg stated that while some of the data is available in public records, much of it appears to be the sort of non-public information that data brokers aggregate from sources like magazine subscriptions, credit card transaction data sold by banks, and credit reports. “A lot of this information is now routinely gathered on American consumers,” Rotenberg adds.

 

 

Online Price Discrimination

ID-100188375African-American people are extremely sensitive to discrimination. No matter what form it takes it is ugly and wrong. Unfortunately discrimination has found a home on the Internet. Its called price discrimination.

We have all had it happen to us. You search for a product or service and find it at one price but then later, sometimes only minutes, the price will change. We have all heard that you should search for flights on certain days and at certain hours to get the best deal. But Internet pricing is discriminatory, even predatory, according to factors that will surprise you.

Research from Northeastern University analyzed how online stores customize prices according to a shoppers digital habits and demographics such as their ZIP code.  The study revealed  major e-commerce sites including Home Depot, Wal-mart, and Hotels.com list online prices that are all over the map. Not only that but in some situations prices are customized based on the behavior of a particular shopper. This behavior includes whether you are shopping on a  smartphone or desktop. The report was presented this at the Internet Measurement Conference in Vancouver, Canada.

“Going into this, we assumed the project would be risky—that we might not find anything,” says Christo Wilson, an assistant professor of computer science at Northeastern and one of the study’s authors. “There have been incidents in the past where companies have been caught doing this, and the PR was very bad. We thought that sites wouldn’t be doing anything. We were more surprised that we found something.”

Some companies whose sites were studied complained that the study methodology was flawed. Northeastern researchers did admit to one mistake but believe that the study provides insight into how your shopping experience can change depending on personal factors.

The actual searching and shopping was performed by 300 people recruited through the crowd sourcing site Mechanical Turk. Researchers had them shop online and perform product searches on 16 top e-commerce sites. The study tested these sites for personalization based on the browser a web shopper might use such as Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari.  Also tested were operating systems; Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, and whether or not a user was logged into the site as a regular customer with an online account.

What the research is looking at is the ability of e-commerce sites to tailor what you pay based on what they know about you. That’s discriminatory. For example does you zip code indicate an certain income level?  Does that mean you can or will pay more? That’s predatory.  Are you paying more for a plane ticket based on your profile on a travel website. That’s predatory. Or what you post on Facebook? That’s discriminatory.

How true is this? We already know that online advertising is targeted at you based on your web searches and other online activity. We also know that Facebook will follow your activity and travels on the Internet even after you log off the website. Merchants use cookies to monitor your activity on websites as well. Another fact to consider is that African-Americans and people of color are more likely to use mobile technology for banking and shopping than white Americans. Your digital profile is out there. Could prices be set based on that? It seems so.

What the test revealed was that if you shop using your smartphone some online stores actually pay attention to what kind of smartphone you use. Home Depot and Travelocity.com websites were the target of the research but they both deny this activity. Researchers admitted to a flaw in the study methodology pointed out by Travelocity.

However, Travelocity admitted to offering a handful of mobile-only offerings on smartphones and tablets that don’t appear on searches performed on desktop computers. Why? Its a tactic used to encourage the download of the the mobile app. A Travelocity spokesperson told Wired.com that results aren’t cheaper by design but sometimes are since Travelocity smartphone users might be looking for a place to stay at the last minute. Results that appear on mobile devices appear to bring down the average price the spokesperson explains. But Travelocity claims the pricing for the same specific properties remain constant across platforms.

Wilson and his team of researchers were able to highlight other forms of price discrimination on some websites but were unable to determine the root cause of the price variations. Among those most notable are Sears and rental car websites. “We tried different browsers and different platforms. We tried logging in and logging out,” Wilson says. “But it looks like there’s something else in there that we haven’t figured out yet.”

Northeastern researchers don’t believe that cookies are all bad. According to Wilson on sites like Cheaptickets.com or Orbitz.com, users who are logged in will often be shown “members only” pricing that, on average,  saves the member $12 on hotels. But if buyers cleared their cookies before conducting the search, they wouldn’t be logged in and wouldn’t see that discount.

Wilson and the Northeastern team avoided Amazon.com and eBay.com. These online marketplaces, explains Wilson, allow sellers to list their own products and used items making things too complicated.

Considering the discriminatory pricing found by this research how does the consumer get the best offer for your money? Wilson points out that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. “Every site we looked at was doing something different—changing different things based on different information,” he says.

There are some guidelines for searching and shopping online;

  • Perform searches on all platforms you have access to. That means your regular browser, an incognito or anonymous browser, and your smartphone or tablet.
  • Plan ahead and take your time to observe price fluctuations.
  • Be extra thorough asking a friend or relative in a different zip code to do the same thing and see what results turn up.
  • Incorporate every money saving tool you can. That includes coupons, credit card discounts, adjusting time and date of travel. Use frequent flyer miles and credits. Ask about credit union or employer discounts.

This way of shopping may be tedious and much different from your mall stores with clearly marked prices, coupons and discounts but it’s an unavoidable part of our digital lives. If you shop online in any form you might as well get used to it. “All online retailers are watching each other, and it’s a race to the bottom,” says Wilson. “The only thing that changes between online stores and brick-and-mortar stores is the pace at which that happens. It’s faster online.”

Now you know.

 

 

 

 

PoachIt Shopping App Shops Like You Do

I discovered an interesting new app that shops like people do. PoachIt is a shopping app that will chase down almost any product on over 5,000 retail websites, identify if the item is on sale or wait for it to go on sale and it does this twice a day. Founder Gidi Fisher says; “When people are browsing the web, they want to buy,” he says. “We want to make it easy for you to buy right now with a coupon, or, if you want to wait, we’re there for you, too.”

The app can also find coupons and tell you if the coupon can be used for the purchase or not. The technology is totally new according to Fisher and there is a patent pending. Fisher says that PoachIt has tested over 4 million coupon codes and found that 80% of them do not work. “Those sites force you into trial and error,” he says. “Without us, there’s a one in five chance you’d actually find a deal.”

Using the new app is pretty simple, shoppers can either download a Chrome extension or add the PoachIt button to their favorites menu. When they find  the “can’t resist, must have” product on a retailer’s website, they simply click the PoachIt button to either track the item until it goes on sale or seek out any coupons available.

I know a lot of black women who love to shop. And I also know at least two women who are excellent shoppers. I call them my discount divas. They are deadly serious about sniffing out sales or waiting for the right sale to pounce on something for a deeply discounted price. Considering their skills such an app would certainly give them an unfair advantage over other bargains hunters. If you love a sale then you need to read more about this app at Wired.com.

Now You Know.