BuzzFeed has become renowned for revealing to users their pop-culture alter ego personas, but what the website learns about the real you in return goes far beyond your Game of Thrones allegiance or your Avengers superpower.
While most websites record some information about visitors (usually for traffic analysis), BuzzFeed “records a whole ton” according to website architect and digital media strategist Dan Barker.
“Have you connected Facebook with BuzzFeed? Do you have email updates enabled? Do they know your gender and age? How many times have you shared their content directly to Facebook and Twitter and via email? Are you logged in? Which country are you in? Are you a BuzzFeed editor? And about 25 other pieces of information,” Barker wrote in a Tuesday blog post titled “BuzzFeed is Watching You.”
“BuzzFeed have actively decided, ‘We need to record this in addition to what Google Analytics gives us out of the box.’”
Barker described all of the above, including tying user activity to email address and other personally identifiable information, as “quite mundane.”
“The scary bit occurs when you think about certain types of BuzzFeed content; most specifically: quizzes.”
Most quizzes are of the pop-culture variety, and match a user’s basic personality traits or interests with that of a popular fictional character (“Which ‘Back to the Future’ character are you?” was trending Tuesday).
Others like “How privileged are you?” are significantly more specific and personal, and boast a serious viral following — the example cited by Barker had well over 2 million views as of Tuesday afternoon.
“I’ve picked some of the questions that may cause you to think ‘Actually, I wouldn’t necessarily want anyone recording my answers here,’” he wrote.
Some of those questions ask for answers about race, discrimination, sexual orientation, gender identity, rape, sexual harassment, learning disabilities, eating disorders, depression, suicide, mental health and medication, among others.
When users check off those answer boxes, BuzzFeed ties their responses to the collected information from earlier and uniquely tags and individualizes every response.
“In other words, if I had access to the BuzzFeed Google Analytics data, I could query data for people who got to the end of the quiz and indicated – by not checking that particular answer – that they have had an eating disorder,” Barker wrote. “Or that they have tried to change their gender.”
Barker speculates BuzzFeed may not have realized their tracking system’s potential to sweep up and tie such personal data to individual users when they set it up. Nevertheless, the vast and growing collection of data could allow for specific queries about sensitive, private information on potentially millions of users.
“This is just a single example, but I suspect this particular quiz would have had less than 2 million views if everyone completing it realized every click was being recorded and could potentially be reported on later.”