Wordle Is Watching You

Wordle Is Watching You
Contributor: Shoshana Wodinsky

It’s been less than a month since the New York Times bought Wordle, but it’s wasting no time in ruining everyone’s favourite word game in all the shitty ways you’d expect from a billion-dollar conglomerate. And — you guessed it — that means your little daily puzzles are being loaded with ad trackers now, too.

Most of us assumed that this was going to happen eventually. I mean, the Times dropped a cool seven-figure sum on a game that’s still free to play (at least for right now), so those profits would need to be recouped from somewhere. And this week, some code-savvy Worlders stumbled onto where that “somewhere” was: a dozen different trackers shoved into places where there were literally zero before.

Taking a look for ourselves, Gizmodo found that some of the trackers were from the New York Times proper, but most were used to send data to third-party players like Google.

Gross? You bet — but it’s also banal as hell. (And before you comment, yes, we know Gizmodo has a ton of ad trackers, too. Believe us, we know.) The Times pulls in tens of millions of ad dollars in every quarter, and that bank largely gets made off promoting subscriptions and the like to those who aren’t already paying up. So based on what’s in there, regular Wordle players might be targeted with, say, ads for Times merch or subscriptions to the Times’ print editions.

I’m sure for most folks, all of this is fine. Fine! Sure, it’s at odds with some of the reasons people even flocked to Wordle in the first place, turning the most Wholesome And Pure part of 2022 into something that’s just another cash grab. But unless you’re the one popping into the website’s code to check into these trackers, Wordle still looks and feels the same way it did prior to the Times acquisition: fine.

The New York Times declined to comment on the addition of trackers to Wordle.

Until you start thinking too hard about it (which I did, immediately). Here’s just one nightmare scenario out of the bajillion or so that could come out of a system like this: Ad trackers were created to shove t-shirts and mugs onto all of our timelines, but they can also be used for outright surveillance. There are countless cases of cops using the data gleaned from those shitty ads to track protestors, immigrants, and anyone else they’d want completely warrant-free. And two of the companies that officers tap on the regular for this work — Google and Oracle (via its infamous Bluekai subsidiary) — are tied up in Wordle’s shiny new trackers. Every time you open the page to see the day’s puzzle to complain about how hard it is, the page pings details back to those companies — and the data it shares can be extremely detailed, as Bluekai’s own documents lay out. At the very least, it’s likely sending broad strokes to say you were on the site at a certain time, while your device was at a certain location.

Sure, adtech players can (and will) pull much shadier shit to share more data on the regular. But as a for instance, if a cop wanted to set a geofence warrant around your neighbourhood — tracking which devices are caught in a specific area at a specific time — they could easily tap into Bluekai’s ad data to get those wheres and whens. And now the fact that you Wordle’d at your local coffee shop on a Tuesday becomes one of the reasons that you ended up on some fed’s watch list for a crime you didn’t commit but will somehow end up jailed for anyway.

This absolute nightmare almost certainly not what’s happening on Wordle right now (phew). And again, this scenario applies to most of the sites you likely visit every day, not just Wordle. But the real scary part about all of this — at least to me — is that it can. The digital ad industry is barely regulated even at the best of times, and there are literally thousands of players out there, each with their own labyrinthine way of routing your data from an app, a site, a fun little puzzle, to… well, wherever they want, as long as the money’s good.

But hey, at least they haven’t come for Dordle yet!