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Scary or Not? More Online Ads Are Targeting User Behavior

Scary or Not? More Online Ads Are Targeting User Behavior

Mark Davis/The Kansas City Star

The cookie is a small amount of computer code stashed on your computer. It will pop up anytime you visit a site on which Vonage has bought ad space and tell the site to show you a Vonage ad.

Sites routinely use cookies to authenticate a registered visitor’s identity, to remember the items in an online shopping cart and other tasks important to online activity.

With behavioral targeting, the back-and-forth traffic builds a profile to tell the Web sites and ad networks what your computer had been up to on previous visits. For example, it will reveal which of the sites in the ad network you’ve visited.

“On Tuesday, maybe you searched for a job as a lobbyist in Kansas City, and they write that in the file,” Eckersley said. “On Wednesday, you log into your (social networking) profile, and they record that fact using the same cookie ID.”

The profile tells behavioral targeting practitioners which ads in their arsenal to show you.

This doesn’t mean the next ad you see online was placed there specifically for you.

Different behavior affects the advertising targeting at different paces.

For example, online behavior showing an interest in high heel shoes is likely to trigger a quick response from behavioral advertising, said John Hilton, senior director of Yahoo’s North American partnerships.

A shoe purchase is potentially spontaneous.

But the behavioral targeting clock may run for months if your interests include housing, Hilton said.

And not all online ads run on behavioral targeting.

At one time, all the ads at The Star’s Web site, KansasCity.com, were the same for everyone. And many still are standing ads, placed for any visitor to see.

KansasCity.com now also delivers targeted ads through a partnership with Yahoo, said Mark Maassen, director of interactive sales for KansasCity.com.

The Star and many other companies in similar partnership rely on the profiles built by Yahoo’s behavioral targeting technology.

Maassen said The Star’s partnership allows it to obtain data taken when a user visits sites that are in Yahoo’s network. The Star uses that data to show you an ad that you may be interested in when you visit KansasCity.com, Maassen said.

A tough sell

So far, consumers haven’t been sold on behavioral targeting.

“Contrary to what many marketers claim, most adult Americans (66 percent) do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests,” said a September report from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Its survey found that the practice meets more resistance when marketers’ data-gathering practices enter the discussion.

Earlier in the year, research firm TNS Global found that about half surveyed were uncomfortable with advertisers knowing their online browsing history, even when that information couldn’t be tied to their names or personal information.

Eckersley said consumers have a reason to be uncomfortable even if advertising companies aren’t looking for personally identifiable information like Social Security and credit card numbers. They still might get it.

“If you’re collecting huge amounts of information about what people are doing on the Web, it’s really difficult to ensure you never get that information,” he said.

Other risks associated with being tracked include the potential damage hackers could do by breaking into an ad company’s database and taking identifiable information.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has advocated for legislation to govern media practices in ways that protect consumer interests.

Companies “are going to offer to self-regulate exactly the minimum amount they think they can in order to avoid being regulated by proper privacy laws,” Eckersley said. “Certainly the U.S. needs better privacy laws. The rise of this behavioral targeting industry has just highlighted that.”

Legislators have begun to look into regulating advertisers and ensuring that consumers know and can control the information collected about them on the Web.