Creepy Advertising, Part 1

Happy Halloween! To get into the spirit of the holiday, I’ll tackle a topic that is perceived as scarier than a horror movie. I’m talking about the creepy privacy-tampering marketing ritual called online behavioral advertising, or OBA, for short. OBA is a method used by online publishers and advertisers to increase the effectiveness of their campaigns by capturing website and landing page visitor data. By using the captured user data, advertisers will be able to provide this particular visitor with advertisements that are relevant to her needs and interests. That is why you got an ad for a backpack from Amazon.com when you Googled “How to survive camping” early on.

Sounds scary? Not for the people who capitalize on it. OBA supporters stress how it provides value to both the web user and the website operator. They claimed that users benefit from seeing more relevant content and advertising. Higher ad revenues can support a wider range of free content on the Internet, which also helps the user. Privacy advocates, however, have expressed concerns about OBA. They argue that web users receive unclear notice and often do not know how to choose whether to receive targeted advertisements. Often, users are unaware that their browsing habits are being tracked by third-party advertising networks.

A simplified model of the ecosystem consists of the following players: tracking companies, data exchanges, ad exchanges, and the advertisers. By using tiny tracking files (aka cookies), tracking companies develop profiles of user behavior and segment them into groups to predict their inclination to purchase particular types of products and services. These companies can either sell this information on data exchanges or directly to advertisers. Data exchanges can combine data gathered from the tracking files with other sources of personal data, such as offline data found in Census figures, real estate records, car registration, etc. and sell this information directly to advertisers or through an advertising exchange. In these exchanges, advertisers buy ad space from websites at auctions. Ultimately, the sites that a user visits will show the ads or other content based on the description of the user in the records that the OBA players built and analyzed.

Technologies that make behavioral advertising possible include web beacons, digital fingerprinting, and cookies in its many forms. The most common technology is the standard cookie, or HTML cookie, which is a small text file that is forwarded from a website down to a web user’s computer, often without the user’s knowledge or consent. An ongoing issue is whether the data contained in the cookies should be considered personal information. If a website has an identified transaction with a user, such as credit card purchase that shows the user’s name, the information collected through cookies can be linked to the credit card purchase. In this case, all information is identifiable. However, there are instances where the user’s name is not directly related to a cookie. In these cases, the cookie might only indicate that a particular computer has visited the same website on several occasions and thus, the organization that sets the cookie may have no indication of the name or other identifying information associated with that computer.

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