CNet Sensationalism And Fearmongering, Part II

Apparently CNet’s staff writers Declan McCullough and Anne Broache just can’t resist the lure of sensationalism and fearmongering. After yesterday’s blatantly inaccurate and highly inflammatory Government Web sites are keeping an eye on you (which undoubtedly generated lots of page views and thus advertising revenue for CNet), they followed up today with Part 2 entitled Congress’ hands caught in the cookie jar.
The highlight of the story (complete with a high impact icon) is this: “Although they have promised to abstain from using cookies to track visits to their Web sites, at least 23 U.S. senators do so. Overall, 66 members of Congress use the tracking devices.
The story picks Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) as its first example, citing that he “has been a longtime advocate of strict privacy laws to restrict commercial Web sites’ data collection practices“, and then points out that “visiting implants a cookie on the visitor’s PC that will not expire until 2035“. (Hey, what can be more sensational that tying the story to a Senator who happens to be in the news for his efforts in combating unethical political behavior?).
And of course the experts have been unable to resist the urge to jump in so as to sound significant and outraged. Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit group in San Francisco exclaims that “it’s willful ignorance. They’re complete hypocrites. How can they accuse companies of poor data management when they’re not doing it on their own Web sites?” And Jim Harper, director of information studies at the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, adds “the irony is rich“.
There is just one big problem with this story. And that is that this is fearmongering at its best; scaring the public, and taking advantage of government officials who did nothing wrong but whom will inevitably have to make a show of fixing the problem.
Why is this just fearmongering and sensationalism? Consider this quote: “In many cases, politicians seemed to be unaware of their use of Web tracking technology until being contacted this week.“. Or this story subtitle, “Dozens of U.S. senators are quietly tracking visits to their Web sites even though they have publicly pledged not to do so.“.
Tracking Visits? Web tracking technology? Is this a display of utter ignorance or simply wanton disregard for the facts so long as it generates clickthroughs?
Cookies do not equal tracking. Yes, cookies could be used to track users, but the presence of a cookie does not mean that anything is being tracked. Politicians seemed to be unaware of their use of tracking, because, well, there is no tracking going on!
But, facts appear to be unimportant to Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache. Even though the ColdFusion team explained the facts to them repeatedly (both before and after the initial story ran), they have once again opted to capitalize on sensationalism, taking advantage of the public’s fear and politician’s sensitivity to the perception of impropriety.
But hey, to hell with facts, I am sure the clickthroughs make it all worthwhile.
(If, unlike Declan McCullagh and Anne Broache, you want the facts, see my previous post).

16 responses to “CNet Sensationalism And Fearmongering, Part II”

  1. Don Avatar

    I think its counter-productive to promote and hype technology and then publish articles of this type.
    I could be wrong but maybe a few of the anti-spyware / cookie crusher types offered CNet a larger chunck of change for sales from and this is CNet’s way of boosting revenue.

  2. Rob Blackburn Avatar
    Rob Blackburn

    I’m sure others have already noticed too, but I just went to and and both sites put cookies on my machine. Now *that* seems a little hypocritical to me.

  3. Patrick Whittingham Avatar
    Patrick Whittingham

    Ben –
    I totally agree with you that cookies either temporary / permanent are being using used on lots of web sites for sesssion state, form variables, cgi variables and other non-privacy issues. That is why just reading the news without asking good questions, is always a good way to have an intelligent response. Keep up the good information. Did you email CNET, if not you should.

  4. Don Avatar

    Did CNet contact you about this issue? I was just wondering since you are in the top 5 on Google search and the top on Amazon.

  5. eric Avatar

    George Bush is President, so bash something to do with the government, and then someone will blame him. Or infer he should have done something to prevent it. Kind of typical, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.
    They know the story is wrong – but of course why stop the train for that slight detail?

  6. todd Avatar

    Coldfusion 101:
    Application.cfm page:
    <cfquery name="trackUser" datasource="myDSN">
    insert into tblSecretSpying
    (userip, datetimevisited, pagevisited)
    values(‘CGI.REMOTE_ADDR’, ‘dateformat(now())’, ‘CGI.SCRIPT_NAME’)
    It’s complete sensationalism to hype the fact that the government is "spying" on you with cookies. As stated on one of Ray’s posts on this topic – cookies can be disabled and/or deleted at the client’s whim. Anyone with a lick of sense can figure out how to do it. If ya can’t, power down the machine, box it up and return it to where ya bought it.
    Seriously, if they really wanted to track your visits to their sites they’d do it and you wouldn’t have a clue. To promote public paranoia for the sake of making a buck disgusts me. They should be boycotted.

  7. Ben Forta Avatar
    Ben Forta

    Don, no, they did not contact me, but they did contact the ColdFusion team. Tim Buntel is quoted in the story, and they did speak to Tim several times (both before and after the story ran), he clarified things to them multiple times, and each time they claimed to have gotten it. Apparently, they just chose to ignore his explanations.
    — Ben

  8. Andrew Avatar

    As both an experienced CF programmer and a long time user of WebTrends Live on many on the web sites I work with I can’t even begine to imagine what these reporters are doing execept generating hype for traffic. WebTrends is merely offsite logging of HTTP requests with intelligent analysis of the resulting traffic data. What manager doesn’t want to know how many unique visitors the web site had that day? What is the harm in knowing that 2,000 visitors came from the UK? What, exactly, is so private about a person’s screen resolution settings or which browser they choose to use? I would think this data would assist in developing better web services for our tax dollars. I’ll add that the policy as I read it would permit the use of WebTrends as well since that too does not collect any data which could not be obtained by merely reading a web servers default logs. Irresponsible reporting.

  9. Seth Finkelstein Avatar
    Seth Finkelstein

    What Declan McCullagh is doing is shilling for the Cato Institute. The point of the article is to be a mouthpiece for the opposition to data-privacy laws – once more, look at who is quoted (PRI == another Libertarian think-tank).
    PRI: "It’s willful ignorance. They’re complete hypocrites. How can they accuse companies of poor data management when they’re not doing it on their own Web sites?"
    Cato: "When it comes to Congress, however, the Cato Institute’s Harper said there is a lesson to learn. "Members of Congress committed themselves to information policies that are unworkable given …"
    The article is Libertarian propaganda. Declan McCullagh is infamous for writing these partisan hatchet-jobs.

  10. Derrick Stone Avatar
    Derrick Stone

    Don’t be so quick to decry politics as a motive. Such lack of responsibility is a natural result of a business model that produces financial statements including page visits per day. Anyone remember the original Robocop in which the future of television was all about giving the viewers exactly what they wanted (I’ll buy that for a dollar?) Besides, cnet lost nearly four million last quarter… take it easy, hehe.

  11. Innocent Bystander Avatar
    Innocent Bystander

    Declan’s rantings and accusations on the legality of these persistent cookies and their legality on federal websites often comes down to one simple fact. Declan is exploiting the general publics lack of understanding and fears for his parent company’s monetary gain.
    A real world comparison would be to write an article about how Police Officers who speed. The article would find one or two officers who exceeded the speed limit excessively, perhaps 40 mph. The majority of officers exceeded the speed limit by less than 5 mph. Then the article would infer that the 40 mph and 5 mph are the same, because they are both speeding and both against the law. Then the article would take it a step further and state that since your car has the ability to speed, that too is in violation of the law.
    Declan, you are doing a great disservice to the non-technical community by spreading your sensationalist journalism (I am writing to Declan here because I know his vanity has brought him to this article… GOT YOU DECLAN, YOU ARE SO BUSTED!!!).

  12. John Dowdell Avatar
    John Dowdell
  13. Innocent Bystander Avatar
    Innocent Bystander

    It is too bad this pieces of drivle trash got slashdotted, it just isn’t going to die the quiet death it deserves.

  14. Innocent Bystander Avatar
    Innocent Bystander

    Nevermind, not slashdotted, that was just the old NSA article from 12/30.

  15. Rob Brooks-Bilson Avatar
    Rob Brooks-Bilson

    Looks like the article and your response got picked up on BoingBoing…

  16. Alex Avatar

    I enjoy reading you blog… keep it up guys!

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