An online advertising company agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it used “history sniffing” to illegally and secretly gather information from millions of consumers about their interest in sensitive medical and financial issues ranging from debt relief and credit repair to fertility and incontinence.

The settlement order bars Epic Marketplace Inc. from using technology that allows online operators to “sniff” a browser to see what sites consumers have visited in the past. It also bars future misrepresentations by Epic and requires the company to destroy information that it gathered unlawfully.

According to the complaint, the history sniffing allowed Epic to determine whether a consumer had visited any of more than 54,000 domains, including pages relating to fertility issues, impotence, menopause, incontinence, disability insurance, credit repair, debt relief and personal bankruptcy.

Epic Marketplace is a large advertising network that has a presence on 45,000 Web sites. Consumers who visited any of the network’s sites received a cookie, which stored information about their online practices including sites they visited and the ads they viewed. The cookies allowed Epic to serve consumers ads targeted to their interests, a practice known as online behavioral advertising.   

In its privacy policy, Epic claimed that it would collect information only about consumers’ visits to sites in its network. 

However, according to the FTC, Epic was employing history-sniffing technology that allowed it to collect data about sites outside its network that consumers had visited, including sites relating to personal health conditions and finances.   

“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,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.  “This type of unscrupulous behavior undermines consumers’ confidence, and we won’t tolerate it.”

The complaint alleges that depending on which domains a consumer had visited, Epic assigned the consumer an interest segment, including categories such as “Incontinence,” “Arthritis,” “Memory Improvement,” and “Pregnancy-Fertility Getting Pregnant.”  Epic used these categories to send consumers targeted ads.

The consent order also bars Epic Marketplace from misrepresenting the extent to which they maintain the privacy or confidentiality of data from or about a particular consumer, computer or device, including misrepresenting how that data is collected, used, disclosed or shared.  It bars misrepresentations about the extent to which software code on a webpage determines whether a user has previously visited a Web site.  

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