The line between research and invasion of privacy has never been so thin as with data "scraping"—the practice of rapidly collecting massive amounts of personal data from the web to sell as consumer research. The Wall Street Journal zeroes in on the experience of PatientsLikeMe.com, a discussion board where people share experiences of emotional disorders. In a typical scraping episode, a new user was found to be copying every single post in the site's database. The offender was no teenage hacker but Nielsen, the media research firm.
The unit at Nielsen that scraped PatientsLikeMe intended to sell data from the patient testimonials to pharmaceutical companies. Nielsen says it no longer scrapes in quite such an intrusive matter, but others interviewed by the Journal are unrepentant: "Social networks are becoming the new public records," says Jim Adler, chief privacy officer of Intelius, a people-search firm. "This data is out there. If we don't bring it to the consumer's attention, someone else will."
(Read more online privacy stories.)