On Monday, CBS ran a morning segment about targeted online advertising and the growing trend to market to users based on their online activity. They talked about ads targeted to site visitors based on what kind of computer they’re using, what other sites they’ve visited, and what they’ve purchased. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent any amount of time shopping online. Companies like Google, Facebook, EBay, Amazon and others are making a mint selling targeted ad space.
Since there are a few ways to go under the advertising radar, this will be broken into a two-part series. This week, we'll explore "opting out".
|This woman has no idea what she's talking about.|
The reporter concludes the segment saying, “Is there a way to stop them? Right now there’s not.”
I don’t know what passes for research at CBS, but there are several things you can do to prevent websites from tracking your activity. But before we get into that, let's explore how exactly online advertising works and why these companies are tracking your every move.
How it works
Every time you surf through, let’s say a shopping website (but don’t think that it’s limited to these sites), a third party advertising company that has an agreement with that website is logging your IP address, which pages you visit, how long you stay at those pages, how much you spend, how fast your internet connection is, and about a hundred other things that are combined to build a profile of who they think you are. That profile is then stored in one of your browser’s folders as a “cookie”. Now, pretty much all websites place cookies, but not all are used for advertising – many are important – giving users full access to a site’s features. But, if you have a tracking cookie, as you web surf and go to different sites, that cookie will track your movements and record what you do on those sites.
Furthermore, many sites have agreements with outside companies to whom your click information is forwarded whenever you visit. Let’s say you go on Ford’s website because you’re in the market for a new car. After shopping around for a while, you head over to the New York Times to catch up on news. If both of those companies have a relationship with the same third party advertising company (and it’s often the case that they will) that company might show an advertisement for a brand new Mustang on the New York Times.
Now here’s where it gets even more personal. Think about a company like Google. Google manages my email, my web searches, the route I take in my car, and a lot more. How much does Google know about me? You can bet they’ve got my name, my age, my geographic location, what I search for online, and pretty much every other little detail. Companies like Google have enough information to paint an extremely detailed portrait of their users.
So, what can you do to prevent companies from tracking your online activity?
Part 1: Opt Out
1. Opt Out Cookies
A few years ago, investigators at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission decided that some internet users might not be very excited about having all of their personal data recorded and logged by advertisers. Thus was born the opt-out cookie. For every tracking cookie used by a company there is a corresponding FTC-required opt-out cookie that tells the advertising company they can’t track you.
If you want to go with this approach, it’s important to remember that there is no single blanket cookie that prevents all tracking – you need to download an opt-out cookie for every advertising company. Fortunately, a plug-in is available for most browsers that will maintain a catalogue of these cookies and ensure that yours are up to date.
2. Do Not Track
Remember the Do Not Call list for telemarketers? This is basically the same thing but for online advertisers.
When you go to a site, information is sent to the site’s servers and in bits called headers. When you use Do Not Track – which is available as a plugin and will soon be available on Internet Explorer – a header is sent to websites notifying them that you are on the Do Not Track list.
Unfortunately, Do Not Track does not apply to sites in closed networks like Facebook and since there is no legal requirement forcing advertisers to go by this list and, from what we’ve seen, most of them choose to ignore it. But hey, it can’t hurt right?
3. Use browser settings to disallow cookies
|Image courtesy of infocarnivore.com|
This is the nuclear option. As mentioned briefly above, many websites – especially social networking sites – require cookies to function properly in your browser. To execute this correctly, you’ll have to maintain an ‘allowed’ list so the cookies you do want will come in without any of the bad ones.
Admittedly, this is probably one of the most effective ways to prevent tracking. Unfortunately, it also requires the most upkeep and may not be worth the compromise for most.
Next: Part 2 — Virtual Private Networks