Who’s Spying on (and Profiting from) Your Browsing Habits?

One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Web is tracking data about your Internet use — everything from comments you leave on websites to health information and financial status — and selling it to companies that want to target ads to specific customer profiles. Algorithms are even used to make predictions about you based on your profile, from how likely is it that you'll repay a loan to where you'll probably spend your summer vacation.

According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), your browsing information, minus your name, can be sold wholesale (“a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand”) or customized (“26-year-old Southern fans of [the movie] '50 First Dates'”). There can be as many as 100 middlemen between your mouse click and an advertiser.

Tracking Tactics
Most people don't realize how detailed the information is that's being tracked, or that sensitive information about health conditions and financial status are no longer off-limits. WSJ‘s study analyzed surveillance technology that companies are using to track consumers and found the following:

  • On average, the 50 top websites in the U.S. installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of site users, typically without notification. Some installed more than a hundred, while others, like Wikipedia, installed none.
  • Technology is becoming more obtrusive. New tools can see what you're doing on a site and track your location, interests, medical conditions, and more. Some tracking tools “re-spawn” after you delete them.
  • In the past year-and-a-half, markets have started up where profiles of individuals are bought and sold, similar to stock market exchanges.
  • Advertisers once bought ads on websites with specific content, such as a laptop ad on a tech website. Now they pay to follow consumers as they browse from site to site with targeted ads.

Important Information or Intrusive?
WSJ
contacted some of the tracking companies, which pointed out that the information collected is both anonymous and harmless. Useful, even. From the first article in the series:

Lotame [a tracking company in New York]…says it doesn't know the name of users…—only their behavior and attributes, identified by code number. People who don't want to be tracked can remove themselves from Lotame's system. And the industry says the data are used harmlessly. David Moore, chairman of 24/7 RealMedia Inc., an ad network owned by WPP PLC, says tracking gives Internet users better advertising. ‘When an ad is targeted properly, it ceases to be an ad, it becomes important information,' he says.

But the article also points to people who are unnerved by ads that target them based on sensitive information, like heath and finances. Take for example, someone recovering from an embarrassing health condition, who still sees ads related to the illness based on his or her previous browsing activity.

What You Can Do About It
If you want to hide information about yourself from tracking tools, WSJ provides simple and advanced tips to conceal your browsing habits from prying eyes. The following are the basic things you can do:

  1. View and delete cookies. Note that you'll have to retype usernames and passwords that were stored by any deleted cookies.
  2. Set your browser to accept cookies you want, such as login information for sites you frequent, and block all others, especially third-party cookies.
  3. If you're going to browse websites you don't want tracked (such as sites about a medical condition), turn on private browsing, which will delete all cookies until you close the browser or turn off the private browsing option.
  4. Monitor, delete, and set preferences for Flash cookies on your computer, which also can contain information used by marketers. You can do this on the Adobe website.

To block beacons, which are tools that track what you type, you'll need to take some more advanced steps.

The tracking tools are probably only going to get more advanced, but is it something that concerns you? Would you rather see ads for products in which you're likely interested, or do you find it intrusive to have your profile bought and sold by Internet marketers?

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Techbud
Techbud
10 years ago

I think the biggest challenge I face as a parent is explaining all of this information to my kids. Letting them know what companies would want this info.

Sulana
Sulana
10 years ago

An ad is an ad is an ad. And I hate them. I don’t care if the ad is “targeted to my interests,” I don’t like how they stretch the screen, float around so I can’t close them, talk to me, and install junk on my computer. That’s why I use Firefox with their marvelous Ad Blocker Plus. Ever since I installed that and switched browsers, I NEVER see an ad.

Ray @ Financial Highway
Ray @ Financial Highway
10 years ago

As long as my personal info (name and phone #’s) are not shared I do not really care. I don’t mind advertisement sometimes it helps me find what I am looking for. But I can understand the concern when their are kids at home who maybe exposed to things they should not be exposed to.

AnneKD
AnneKD
10 years ago

Though I’m sure my browsing is still tracked, at least I don’t see ads anymore. We use Mozilla Firefox browser at our house, and the app Adblocker Plus. Thanks for the info! Please excuse me while I check on my cookie settings…

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

This is why I love my AdBlock Plus. They can try and target ads to me. Ha.

cassy
cassy
10 years ago

“There can be as many as 100 middlemen between your mouse click and an advertiser” is scary.

Aren’t there any federal laws or regulations to notify the users that their info is being passively tracked?

Blair MacGregor
Blair MacGregor
10 years ago

The sad thing is that behavioral targeting alone is actually pretty innocuous compared to some of the advertising that’s done with regard to toolbars etc. Even the ones that seem benign often end up hijacking your browser and start popping up windows, etc. It’s THOSE ads that are the worst, in most people’s eyes.

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

What about sites that pay you to search (like Swagbucks)? Anyone have info on what they do with your information?

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

I’d just like to offer a counter viewpoint. Cookies (a fancy name for a text file with a preference setting, or an anonymous id, and an expiration date) aren’t bad things. Beacons (a fancy name for an image request) aren’t bad things. I constantly try to educate my mother NOT to delete her cookies because it skews data that web analysts use to make the website better. If you want a better internet with more user friendly sites, less annoying clutter or ambiguous buttons or directions, than please, allow cookies to do their job. Much of this data is used… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

The ads keep trying to sell me doughnuts. What does that say about my browsing history?

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

I have spyware installed on my computer, but I am sure I am still tracked.

I don’t ever buy anything from ads, so having ads that are specific to my habits matters nothing to me. Actually, it kind of creeps me out…

The Biz of Life
The Biz of Life
10 years ago

Disabling cookies is a good idea, and you can also access the Internet through a proxy service which will help conceal your identity. You can also get rid of Windows and move to Linux which will make you less vulnerable to spyware.

Anyone tracking my browsing habits would be pretty boarded.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

As a scientist, I have to research all sorts of crazy things at work, but on my lunch time, I do personal browsing (such as GRS), so I’m sure whomever is tracking me thinks I am nuts! I’m not concerned about tracking by itself because everything you do anywhere can be tracked these days. I am much more concerned that even though your name is not supposed to be attached to the info, it is and it is being used by the government to track everything you do. It’s called the Patriot Act. Seemingly innocent searches can land you on… Read more »

KS
KS
10 years ago

Cassy asked if there are any federal or other regulations that require companies to notify you if you’re being tracked. No, there aren’t in the U.S. There are few protections for consumer data/information, and as someone pointed out, the federal government can do it under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Cradledonthewaves
Cradledonthewaves
10 years ago

I really dislike targeted ads, Facebook is horrible for them and there is no way to block them. Adblocker plus works great for a lot of other unwanted ads though. To answer your question, I find it very intrusive to have my profile bought and sold.

Frugal Texas Gal
Frugal Texas Gal
10 years ago

I always laugh because I have no consumer debt and never have had other than car and house, paid on time. and yet I regularly get stuff to improve my credit score, fight uncle sam and so on and so forth. I can only assume that whoevers tracking me assumes that I visit frugal and finance sites becuase I’m in trouble, LOl/

AdMan John
AdMan John
10 years ago

I’m not actually an advertiser, rather, an Analyst of the data that is collected. But I thought I might be able to help put things in perspective from the other side. It seems from the tone of your comments, that most of you seem to lean towards the idea that companies are tracking you personally. In most scenarios, this is not the case. In fact, I’ve never looked at the history of an individual user for my work on our site. When you see ads that are targeted towards you, these are normally part of a type of marketing called… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

I do marketing for a company that uses these types of ads, and we buy these ads for the simple reason that they are effective. Consider this from the business owner’s perspective. If you’re paying for advertising, you want it to reach people who are most open to your message/service. I don’t get any personally identifiable information about you. Specifically, we buy banners that appear for people who have visited our website, and we buy banners that appear for people who have been to similar types of websites as our’s. For consumers, they get more relevant ads, rather than random… Read more »

financial freedom
financial freedom
10 years ago

I agree with AdMan John. I believe these companies are just using the law of average. They pretend they know but they really dont know all about us. It’s one of those, If I send to 100 and only 1 respond then I need to send to 1000 so I can get 10 to respond and so on… Yes it is annoying getting these adds, but I know how my credit is and so I dont let it bother me one bit

julia
julia
10 years ago

One thing that bugs me about this is when online shopping.

Sometimes when you go shopping for an item, but don’t buy right away, the next time you go to buy it, the price has changed. Is that because of inflation or a sale? no, it has to do with your history and what you went to look for after. Occasionally I’ll get an offer to get it for less, but more often then not the price has gone up slightly. It makes finding deals online just that much more annoying.

Jaime
Jaime
10 years ago

I don’t feel a lot of personal angst about ads online, nor do I care very much if they’ve been targeted to me (assuming I even notice). Just about the only ads I consciously notice anymore are the ones that move across your screen (annoying and won’t buy that product just on that principle) or when I’m actively shopping. However, it does bug me to constantly have to fend off people trying to track what I do online – especially when it’s passive stuff I’m doing, like browsing. The advertisers who buy this information may not have my name and… Read more »

slowth
slowth
10 years ago

We’re on a personal finance site, so how much more targeting do you need? I think advertisers can guess what we’re interested in without tracking us.

Thanks, April. Great post.

Jason @ Redeeming Riches
Jason @ Redeeming Riches
10 years ago

@ #10 – Nicole, that’s even scarier – they even know you’re hungry! 🙂

Jason @ Redeeming Riches
Jason @ Redeeming Riches
10 years ago

These are things I’d rather just remain ignorant to and enjoy my browsing experiences. So what if they’re making a buck.

Kinda like how you really don’t want to go back to the kitchen of your favorite restaurants because you’ll never want to eat there again.

I’d rather enjoy my food and not see the chef preparing my dinner in a wife-beater!

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I sold print advertising for a few years, and I feel like I’m pretty immune to it. Plus we practice conscious spending, and frugality.

The tracking just makes me feel like I’m putting one over on the advertisers – they’re paying bloggers and other sites I like, and I don’t ever buy any of their crap.

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
10 years ago

I don’t mind. As others have pointed out, our personal habits and preferences can be pieced together using offline sources of info, too. If it can help cut down on the amount of paper junk mail I get then online tracking would be a welcome bonus, actually! Ads can pop up here and there and everywhere, but no one can force me to buy what is being advertised. That’s still a personal decision I get to make on my own.

jim
jim
10 years ago

The keyword is anonymous. If its anonymous then really who cares? If the information is anonymous and all they’re looking at is my browsing habits then I have ZERO problem with it. The advertising and marketing companies are not going to do anything evil or bad with the anonymous browsing habits. I really don’t care what ads they put up on web pages, but if they’re going to have ads then they may as well be about stuff I have some interest in as opposed to stuff I don’t have any interest in.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

AdBlock Plus with one of the automated updaters is awesome on Firefox. Browsing the web without it is a miserable experience. Drop the ads and pages load a lot more quickly, not to mention less tracking goes on.

Going to Linux (or Mac) also helps a lot with the spyware/malware. If you need to stick with Windows, get off XP and go to Windows 7. The security updates are well worth it, as opposed to XP, where the security holes are legion.

Ken
Ken
10 years ago

I wonder if it makes any difference using a Mac or PC when it comes to spyware being installed on your computer. I’m usually quite careful, but sometimes I still wonder…

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

Ken – it makes a difference. come on down to the land of Apples!

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
10 years ago

I say get these people out of our “business”. I religiously delete cookies from my computer and anything else I can do to keep people from “tracking” me.

Its none of their business, whether used harmlessly or not.

Because at some point in time, sombody will figure out an unethical use for this information, and then where are we?

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

I rather see ads for stuff I may like since I can disregard ads pretty easily. I don’t mind being tracked…I like shopping cards for this reason too. I get the best Kroger coupons simply since they know what I buy.

Millie
Millie
10 years ago

“You can do this on the Adobe website.”

FYI, the link provided for Adobe is a mashup of your website address + Adobe’s. It would help the readers if you fixed it. 🙂

Thanks for the info.

GetRichSlowly
GetRichSlowly
10 years ago
Reply to  Millie

Thanks Millie – this has been fixed

Gustavo Bonato
Gustavo Bonato
10 years ago

If you are really concerned, install TOR. Google “TOR” and you will learn all that’s necessary to browse without surveillance.

Smoovie
Smoovie
10 years ago

The Firefox addon NoScript also helps a lot to remove advertising, and to block some of these trackers. It automatically blocks all Javascript, which most ads are dependent on, and you can then whitelist scripts from certain domains. Two of these usage analysis services you may see most frequently are googleanalytics.com and quantserve.com.

Trista Glowacki
Trista Glowacki
5 years ago

Nevada (as you might expect) was the first jump on the bandwagon. This could be the news from other countries, news from their own country, or views that are differing from what the government wishes to have the public hear and follow. They are message board “spammers” who are hired by big money special interest groups to deceive us into buying products or services that line the pockets of their employers.

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