By now the experience is all too familiar: your online browsing activity follows you as you browse, dictating which ads you see. Visit the Tag Heuer site for a few moments, and suddenly banner ads for Tag Heuer watches follow you as you browse other sites; check out a new laptop bag at eBags, and now you can’t go anywhere without seeing eBags ads. It’s “behavioral advertising,” it’s ubiquitous, and nearly unavoidable. Nearly.
Behavioral advertisers analyze your online behavior, tracking what you search for, what websites you visit and what services you use. The resulting data is used to determine what ads are shown to you, and as described above, have ads follow you from site to site, a practice known as “retargeting.”
If you feel as though your privacy is being invaded, you’re not alone. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in December of 2010, 67% of the consumers polled indicated that advertisers should not be allowed to present ads based on their Internet use. Part of the problem may lie with the advertisers themselves, as they haven’t done a particularly good job of explaining behavioral advertising or conveying its potential benefits to consumers.
In any event, it’s pervasive. Click on the image below to see how many tracking companies you’d encounter from a handful of popular websites (graphic courtesy of The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” —
You can stop them!
Fortunately, there are a few tools you can use in order to opt out of behavioral advertising, and the process is easy.
1. NAI – Network Advertising Initiative.
Visit the NAI Site and you’ll see a list of companies and how many of them have placed a cookie on your computer, enabling them to track your behavior; opt out of whichever ones you want, if not all. When you first visit the site, your Opt Out report will look something like this excerpt, except you likely have cookies on your computer from some of the tracking networks (my Firefox settings and anti-tracking software didn’t cooperate, so there were no cookies from any of the sites NAI handles):
This quick, 3 minute video explains how the service works:
Privacy Choice offers Firefox Add-On “TrackerBlock,” which blocks, according to the developer, up to 425 tracking companies from monitoring your activity.
PrivacyChoice also offers a nifty bookmark called PrivacyMark for Firefox and IE that lets you block trackers on a site by site basis; all you need to do is drag it to your bookmarks bar:
3. My personal preference: TACO
The option I’ve been using is Abine’s Firefox Add-on TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out). This brief video explains TACO well:
I’ve used TACO for a couple of months now, and love it. I never see targeted ads, and it’s extremely simple to see who’s trying to track me:
The product includes a nifty dashboard with additional information including a “Risk Level” meter (click for a close-up):
TACO seems to defeat the pay model at The New York Times. You can turn the product off for sites you trust (like this site!). A note: using TACO also defeats Google Adsense ads; whether this is a good thing or bad thing depends upon your perspective.
You can download TACO free here: TACO download
Abine offers other security products; I’ll write about another involving protecting your personal data online in another week or so.