Targeted Advertising Online: Good or Bad Use of Personal Information?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay user TeroVaselainen.

Millions of Americans browse the Internet daily, or at least once a week. You may have noticed while browsing the Internet that sometimes ads seem suspiciously relevant to your life. For instance, while browsing a humor website recently, I noticed an ad for a clothing company that sells a dress I had looked at online earlier in the week. You might think that these ads that know what you like are a coincidence, but in actuality, Google, Facebook and other popular websites and search engines collaborate to custom-make ads tailored to each Internet user’s interests. There are plenty of articles and research about targeted advertising, but by presenting a summary of the most important aspects of the topic, I hope to give you the ability to make your own informed opinion about targeted advertising.

Does this idea of search engines and frequently browsed websites sharing your personal information with advertising companies seem uncomfortable, if not an invasion of Internet users’ privacy? A 2012 Pew Internet study reports that 59 percent of Internet users noticed the rise of targeted ads while browsing. If targeted ads make you uncomfortable, then you are going to like this next fact even less: companies like Google not only share your personal search history with big name companies, but they can also share this information with the NSA, who in turn will be able to spy on you if they want or need to.

Targeted ads are created by saving a history of websites you have visited using “cookies,” or files that track your browsing patterns and store or send them. First party cookies come from the website you visited, and third party cookies are from ads embedded in the page. This file of websites you have visited is called Clickstream Data. This information sharing among companies explains why when you search for a term on Google, the more profitable companies are at the top of the list, and why ads on that page match what you just searched. Shopping websites and social media websites use cookies to suggest other items to buy based on past items bought. Facebook targets ads based on you or your friends’ likes and search history. These advertising strategies keep becoming more sophisticated. Information about you can be compiled from pictures, places you are tagged in, your cursor movements (what you click on/view), things you share and websites you visit. Since Google stores every search you have ever performed, it is easy for them to learn your age, gender, location, shopping habits, hobbies and even medical conditions.

It stands to reason that this practice would attract some controversy. Some people are concerned that the cookies used will download viruses onto their computers. This is not true because cookies are only text files, not programs. Others simply value their privacy and consider big companies trading personal information about them to be invasive and underhanded. It is also true that the public does not know how the stored information could potentially be used for and want to be err on the side of caution. However, supporters of targeted ads point out that these cookies are usually harmless, and that ads are the reason the Internet is free. Ethically, it makes more sense for consumers to have a choice whether to opt in or out of advertising. Willing customers can continue to see ads relevant to their interests, while users annoyed by targeted ads can choose not to be targeted.

For me, I realized how personalized the information websites stored about me was when I noticed ads specifically mentioning my town on a random humor website. Even searches for directions between cities and maps are saved, which means that Internet ads can be personalized even further. With each new piece of information saved, a new range of advertising possibilities opens up.

If you want to limit targeted ads and not have to deal with them so much, there are a variety of ways you can opt out of them. Under your internet browser settings, you can go under the settings, under “Privacy” and click “Clear Browsing Data.” Also uncheck the box for prediction services and send a “do not track” request to your internet browser. This should prevent more new targeted ads from coming from your search engine in the future.

Another option is logging into your Google account and going to Web History. You can then click a box for “remove items” or the “delete all” option. There is a gear icon that says “web history is on” that you can click to turn it off. There is also a Google Ads Settings page you can visit to opt out of Google ads. While these methods will reduce the targeted ads, Google can still store personal information, and these methods do not address other websites that use your information to create custom ads.

There are alternative, lesser known websites you can use that don’t store your history. There are a variety of apps that prevent Google, Facebook, and other companies from learning too much. For opting out of Facebook ads, as well as any other brands that use targeted ads, you can go to the Digital Advertising Alliance and on the page, go to “Companies Customizing Ads for your Browser.” Click the box for Facebook and any other companies you want to opt out of and click submit. Click here to go to DAA’s page to opt out of ads.

For me, 117 media companies (including smaller companies owned by larger media groups) were using my browser history to create targeted ads. If you use the mobile app of any of these websites, you will have to go under the app’s setting and change your privacy options. For instance on the Facebook mobile app for iPhones, go to General Settings, then Restrictions, then Advertising under the privacy section, and flip a switch to limit ad tracking. For Androids, go to Google Settings, Ads, then “Opt Out Of Internet-Based Ads.”

Ironically, I noticed a slew of ads while doing research on targeted advertising and opting out of them. The fact that I was seeing ads about blocking ads confirmed how proactive and aggressive advertisers can be. I believe that more consumers should at the very least, be aware of the information manipulation all around them so they can decide their stance on the issue, rather than unknowingly and passively absorbing these messages. All of these methods will greatly reduce the personalization of internet ads, although information can never be completely erased. Deleting items from your Google account and other websites will get rid of past search information, while opting out of ads from various companies and websites will help prevent further targeted ads in the future.


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