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.
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:
- View and delete cookies. Note that you'll have to retype usernames and passwords that were stored by any deleted cookies.
- Set your browser to accept cookies you want, such as login information for sites you frequent, and block all others, especially third-party cookies.
- 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.
- 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?
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.