In 2021, a company specializing in collecting and selling location data called Near bragged that it was “The World’s Largest Dataset of People’s Behavior in the Real-World,” with data representing “1.6B people across 44 countries.” Last year the company went public with a valuation of $1 billion (via a SPAC). Seven months later it filed for bankruptcy and has agreed to sell the company. Jon Keegan highlights the ramifications to the public.
By now most internet users know their online activity is constantly tracked. No one should be shocked to see ads for items they previously searched for, or to be asked if their data can be shared with an unknown number of “partners.” But what is the scale of this surveillance? Judging from data collected by Facebook and newly described in a unique study by non-profit consumer watchdog Consumer Reports and the Markup, Jon Keegan writes that it’s massive, and examining the data may leave you with more questions than answers.
This article is an interview by Jon Keegan with Micah Lee, author of a new book on analyzing datasets that were leaked, hacked, or just accidentally left in the open.
Investigative data journalist Jon Keegan and former tech lawyer Linda Woods Hyman teach you how to spot tricks and hidden disclosures within these interminable documents—and even how to claw back some privacy.
If you spend any time online, you probably have some idea that the digital ad industry is constantly collecting data about you, including a lot of personal information, and sorting you into specialized categories so you’re more likely to buy the things they advertise to you. But in a rare look at just how deep—and weird—the rabbit hole of targeted advertising gets, Investigative Data Journalist Jon Keegan and Visualizations Engineer Joel Eastwood of the The Markup analyzed a database of 650,000 of these audience segments, newly unearthed on the website of Microsoft’s ad platform Xandr. The trove of data indicates that advertisers could also target people based on sensitive information like being “heavy purchasers” of pregnancy test kits, having an interest in brain tumors, being prone to depression, visiting places of worship, or feeling “easily deflated” or that they “get a raw deal out of life.”
Reporter Colin Lecher and Data Journalist Jon Kreeger discuss how websites for mental health crisis resources across the country—which promise anonymity for visitors, many of whom are at a desperate moment in their lives—have been quietly sending sensitive visitor data to Facebook. Dozens of websites tied to the national mental health crisis 988 hotline, which launched last summer, transmit the data through a tool called the Meta Pixel, according to testing conducted by The Markup. That data often included signals to Facebook when visitors attempted to dial for mental health emergencies by tapping on dedicated call buttons on the websites.