Home > 2011 > Identity Theft > How to Avoid Online Tracking. (Hint: You Can’t.)

How to Avoid Online Tracking. (Hint: You Can’t.)

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Smash-ComputerOnline advertisers want to know everything they can about you. To understand why, consider the snow blower. Let’s say it’s January, and Home Depot has 30,000 snow blowers it wants to sell.

There are some customers that Home Depot doesn’t want, like people in Arizona. The retailer probably doesn’t care about customers in Manhattan, either, since most people there don’t own houses or shovel their own driveways.

But there are some customers that Home Depot really wants to reach. It would love to find people who own their own houses, maybe in a northeastern state. Ideally they make enough money to afford a snow blower, and they’re old enough to consider hanging up the shovel for good. Maybe they’ve already been online searching for deals on snow blowers. And maybe the local weather forecaster is predicting their town will get pummeled tomorrow by a blizzard.

That’s the kind of people you want to hit with an advertisement for snow blowers. And now’s the perfect time to do it.

“They know it’s a good bet they could sell you that snow blower before the next storm,” says Jay Sears, general manager of Contextweb, a kind of stock exchange for online advertising.

What Do They Want To Know? Everything.

The information that advertisers need to make that happen is at least as varied as the products they’re trying to sell. Your age, race, gender, income, where you live, your online surfing history, the book you bought last week on Amazon, the things you say to friends on Facebook, all of it can be recorded and used to help serve you an ad that is more likely to catch your eye.

And increasingly, the data isn’t just about what you do online. Internet advertisers are buying access to any data sets they can find – your shopping habits from your grocery store loyalty card, automobile registrations, county criminal records – to learn more things about you than you know yourself (do you remember which brand of toilet paper you bought last week?).

Online advertisers need all this information because they’re trying to decrease the amount of ads they can buy, and increase the success rate on the ads they do buy. Instead of broadcasting ads to the millions of people who watch 60 Minutes, for example, with more data they can drill down to reach just the tens of thousands of people they think might actually buy their product.

The desired effect: More sales for less money.

“The whole point is for the right ad to be shown to the right person at the right time,” Sears says.

Next: How Do They Know That? >>>

Image: James Lee, via Flickr.com

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  • Adam from London

    Ha I’m running Firefox with Flash blocker and the Panopticlick site doesn’t collect anything.

    It takes 20 seconds to install the flash blocker and it stops flash from running on any site you haven’t specifically allowed.

  • Jane

    I’ve got a program which assigns a random IP address whenever I want to surf the web anonymously. I don’t actually use it much, not being into kiddie p_rn or anything, I just downloaded it because it seemed like a useful thing to have if needed. I don’t use Facebook and I don’t use loyalty cards as they track all your purchases as well as knowing postcode, address and other personal info. I’ve used a flash blocker in the past but then I can’t use internet banking without it.

  • Silner

    I think this is wrong Chris. TOR Adblock Disconnect all seem to work fine. How did you test this Chris?

  • http://technotroll.org/blablabla ufa

    Not true. Check torbutton

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  • John

    Hint: You can.

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  • http://www.abine.com/ rob s.

    Christopher: very nicely written article and correct on many counts and in your overall thesis: It is just plain hard to not get tracked online today.

    However, your understanding and description of the browser companies needing to have updated lists for users to block cookies or delete them is FALSE.

    Browsers are simply processors of html and other information and dutifully must show all cookies (and other tracking) somewhere in their communication with the sites visited.

    INCORRECT:
    Why It’s Doomed: One problem with deleting cookies from your browser is that you’re relying on the company that created your browser to have an up-to-date list of companies with cookies to block. If your browser is even a month old, there will be new companies and new cookies that don’t appear on the list, so they can’t be blocked. The only way to stay protected is to continually update to the newest browse

  • Jack Tripper

    This article misses some effective options:

    — Block all cookies and whitelist only the sites where you actually need them. I know the author dismisses this option, but if advertisers can’t place cookies, they have to rely on your IP address or browser fingerprint (see below)

    — Use ad blocking software
    — BetterPrivacy removes Flash cookies

    — NoScript blocks JavaScript and other code that can fingerprint your browser / computer. With NoScript alone my Panopticlick uniqueness is about 1 in 300. Not very effective for tracking among millions of internet users.

    — Ultimately, you could use anonymizing services, like Tor mentioned above. If your IP address is changing every 10 minutes (and is the same IP address as thousands of other users), the data that web sites / advertisers gather is pretty useless.

    The last option is pretty extreme, but if you *really* care about being tracked, you can in fact avoid it.

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  • http://www.google.com/ Sherlyn

    Hey, good to find smoenoe who agrees with me. GMTA.

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