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US FTC bars advertising firm from sniffing browser histories

The online advertising company allegedly spied on consumers' visits to health- and bankruptcy-related websites, the agency says

An online advertising firm accused of spying on the browser histories of consumers has reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission barring it from further browser history sniffing, the agency announced.

Epic Marketplace illegally gathered information from millions of Web users, including information about medical and financial issues such as fertility, incontinence, debt relief and personal bankruptcy, the FTC alleged.

The settlement with the FTC, announced Wednesday, bars Epic Marketplace from continuing to use history sniffing technology and requires the company to destroy information it gathered illegally, the FTC said in a press release.

The websites for Epic Marketplace, based in New York City, and parent company Epic Media Group, were down Wednesday. Epic Media Group stopped posting on its Twitter feed more than a year ago. IDG News Service was unable to reach the companies for comment, although the company in 2011 blamed the history sniffing on a legacy advertising system it acquired a year earlier.

Epic Marketplace operated a large advertising network with a presence on 45,000 websites, the FTC said. Those who visited any of the network's sites received a cookie that allowed Epic to serve consumers ads targeted to their interests, the agency said.

In its privacy policy, Epic said it would collect information only about consumers' visits to sites in its network. However, Epic used history-sniffing technology allowing it to collect data about sites outside its network, including sites relating to personal health conditions and finances, the FTC said.

"Consumers searching the Internet shouldn't have to worry about whether someone is going to go sniffing through the sensitive, personal details of their browsing history without their knowledge," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. "This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers' confidence, and we won't tolerate it."

The FTC accused Epic of a deceptive business practice. The history sniffing allowed Epic to determine whether a consumer had visited more than 54,000 domains, including pages relating to fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief, and personal bankruptcy.

Epic used the tracking to send targeted ads related to several health issues, the FTC said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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More about: Federal Trade Commission, FTC, IDG
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Tags: advertising, U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Jon Leibowitz, Epic Marketplace, security, regulation, internet, government, privacy, Epic Media Group
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