Follow You, Follow Me

It has never surprised me that people obsessed with their privacy will still give away a ton of private information for a lottery ticket. Their concern has always been what people do with the data, not whether they put it out there.

I relearned that lesson recently when a publisher asked me to look at a number of “free lottery” sites: FreeLotto, LuckySurf, and webMillion.

The publisher wanted to know whether these sites actually pay off. That I couldn’t say. I’ve never won or heard complaints about them. I assume they do. (You do pay off, don’t you?) I was more interested in how they got the money for payouts and profits.

Let’s start with cookies. By using Netscape Navigator, I was able to learn about each cookie as it entered my computer system. I counted six cookies at FreeLotto, eight at LuckySurf, and nine at webMillion, including a cookie that wanted to be set as soon as you entered the main URL.

The heart of the business model is the registration page. These sites have to know where to send your winnings, right? They’re getting your name, your real address, and your email address valuable stuff. (LuckySurf also wants your age how many kids are going to answer that one honestly? webMillion adds a request for your sex just in case my sister Michael plays.) All the sites then have some version of a “forced click-through” ads you have to click on (you get to choose among three) before you’re given permission to play.

There’s one more source of cash: email lists. LuckySurf and webMillion are both big on email lists. LuckySurf offers to “surf the web for you” by having you sign up on NetCreations’ lists. (Remember that advertisers are now paying more than $200 per thousand for verified opt-in email addresses.) webMillion’s email partners include Lifeminders, Joke of the Day, Xdrive, and Shagmail. If you don’t like marketing emails, you have to be careful here some offers (like “Smart Reminders”) come prechecked. In order to even enter the webMillion game, of course, you have to receive its emails notifying you of who won; no doubt they’re chock-a-block with advertising.

I’m not objecting to any of this. If you think there’s such a thing as free money without a catch, you’ll no doubt be parted from your money really soon. The sites are fairly honest about their tradeoffs. (FreeLotto includes a link to AIG Insurance, which handles FreeLotto’s payouts.) But there are important lessons here for all of us.

  • Greed remains the great motivator of our time.

  • It’s easy (and inexpensive) to pad email lists and click-through totals without even breaking the canons of ethics, let alone the law.
  • Cookies are easy to set few people have any objection to them.
  • The Pew Study which found people are worried about privacy but don’t do anything about it is wildly accurate.

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