A Business Technology Place

Targeted ads and your privacy

A large portion of my time at work managing Information Technology is spent handling security and availability of data. The number of compliance controls has sharply risen in recent years as a direct result of the publicity of data breaches and high profile data theft. Quite frankly, security and availability compliance is a bit chaotic right now with new job creation, changing standards, new standards, and individual company risk assessments.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal from Christopher Mims about targeted ads left me thinking about the availability of my personal data spread across servers and data stores all over the internet. We all know about internet browser cookies leaving trails of our activity as we use the internet for research, shopping, reading, and entertainment. Mims discusses the rise of Amazon’s ad business and how it offers distinct data points that may differ from other internet giants like Google and Facebook. All this data sharing is governed by privacy policies, terms of use, and partner affiliates. But I still find it creepy when products I have researched appear on other sites I visit as recommended buys. As I mentioned my job makes me prove how I don’t share customer data. But retail and social media businesses are monetizing my data by selling it.

I performed a simple test this morning to how browser privacy settings affected my experience with some internet sites. For all these tests I used the Google Chrome Browser. Other browsers have similar features.

Note: There are so many variations for privacy settings across sites that this can quickly become a complex subject. Businesses rely on cookies in your browser but also have the ability to track your history on their site in their databases which is governed by their privacy rules. My simple test was to see how I might increase some of my privacy by adjusting a couple of settings on a browser.

Test One – Eat all the cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn on the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser
  6. Close and reopen the browser
  7. Go to Amazon, eBay, and Facebook

Results:

This setting allows the sites visited to set their tracking and information cookies. But each time the browser is closed all of the cookies are removed.  Automatically clearing cookies means it is necessary to log into the websites each time the site is revisited. Clearing cache files causes websites to load more slowly after a browser restart. Are the performance downsides worth the small increase in privacy?

I checked sites Amazon, eBay, and Facebook and targeted ads were not there across different browser sessions. But I did have to reauthenticate.

Test Two – Eat some cookies

Setup:

  1. Select the three vertical dots in the upper right corner and then select “settings” or go to chrome://settings/ in the browser address bar.
  2. From the settings bar scroll to the bottom and select advanced
  3. Under Privacy and Security select content settings
  4. Next select cookies
  5. Turn off the setting to keep local data only until you quit your browser (revert Test One)
  6. In the section Clear on Exit add sites that may serve targeted ads. I chose
    • [*.]Facebook.com
    • [*.]Amazon.com
    • [*.]eBay.com
  7. Close and reopen the browser
  8. Go to www.google.com
    • Search “new tires”
    • Search “printer toner HP”
    • Search “Keurig k cups”
  9. Go to Facebook browse and look for ads
  10. Go to Amazon browse and look for ads
  11. Go to eBay browse and look for ads

Results:

I didn’t find any in-line ads for tires, toner or coffee initially. I noted that I had not clicked on any search results; I just searched and viewed results. I went back and researched on Keurig k cups. Then I clicked on a result from Amazon. When I did this, the recommended buys from Amazon completely filled with k cups.  I closed the browser and the recommended buys changed back to something I had purchased in the past. But the site still showed items I had recently browsed.  Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

eBay only filled a section with recently viewed items which gave me the impression they were only seeing activities performed on their site. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account.

Facebook had no advertising in-line but did serve ads on the right-side of the page under the title “recommended for you nearby”. The ads I saw didn’t match tires, printer toner, or coffee. Since I cleared cookies I had to re-authenticate for my account. Advertisers buy targeted ads based on specific interests. I guess my timing wasn’t right for my three tests.

A few more settings of interest:

Facebook:

In addition to the web browser, Facebook is also tracking your account activity and selling that data to advertisers. Turn off some of the Facebook targeted advertising by doing this:

  1. From your Facebook profile, click on the small upside-down triangle in the upper-right side.
  2. Select Settings
  3. Select Ads from the left-hand side of the page
  4. Facebook selects Yes as the default option. Change the permissions to No.

Google:

  1. Go to page https://myaccount.google.com/activitycontrols
  2. There are various sections for activity tracking by Google (search, devices, YouTube, location, etc.) Read each section and designate if you want Google keeping that information.

My thoughts:

Unless I go off the grid or completely stop using the internet, it’s not possible to stop all monitoring of my activities by my internet provider, merchants, search engines, etc. Playing with the browser settings may limit some of the trails I leave and give me a sense of a little more privacy. The settings can certainly reduce the size of my electronic footprint but not eliminate it. As I mentioned before, it’s up to the individual to weigh the trade-offs of privacy with usage on the site.

Onward and upward!

Photo credit: Surlan Soosay via creative commons.

Click-to-run video and ad content in 2017

Most of the time when I browse and consume content on internet pages I’m trying to scan and read. Ads and videos that automatically start playing are more of a nuisance. They produce noise, delay the page from loading, and require I scroll through the page to stop them.  Last year I disabled flash player content from playing automatically in my Chrome browser by disabling plugin in the settings.

To do this type following in the web address bar: chrome://plugins/

Then disable the player but make sure the box is checked to allow it to run.

Now a page that has videos that automatically load displays this

Microsoft, Google, and Mozilla have announced plans to disable flash by default on future releases of their browsers. The reasons that drive this decision are performance and security. I’d like to add nuisance reduction as well 😉

 

Onward and upward!