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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

Nothing to fear?

The advertising and media industries counter that consumers shouldn’t fear behavioral targeting practices.

Tracking companies aren’t trying to get personally identifying information, said Curran of the Network Advertising Initiative.

The group has identified certain categories of information that are off-limits without consumer consent – including Social Security numbers, insurance or financial information, information about a user’s precise real-time location and information about health or medical conditions.

Curran said the Network Advertising Initiative includes the 10 largest ad networks as members pledging to operate ethically.

“That’s a pretty big footprint in terms of people stepping up for self-regulation,” he said.

Moreover, there are no financial incentives for an online ad company to collect sensitive information, said Scott Lynn, CEO of Adknowledge, a Kansas City-based online advertising company with more than $250 million in revenue.

“Having personally identifiable information doesn’t benefit us in any way. We’re just trying to make an ad more relevant on a Web site to a consumer,” Lynn said. “It’s not worth … doing anything that could be adverse to a consumer’s interest.”

How to opt out

If you’re worried about online tracking and behavioral advertising, there are a few things you can do to help limit companies from obtaining data about you or pitching you behavioral advertising.

If you use Firefox or Internet Explorer to browse the Web, consider the Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, or TACO, plugin available at taco.dubfire.net.

It limits 90 different online ad networks from posting behavioral advertising. In some cases, it stops the company from tracking browsing habits.

Setting a good cookie policy in your browser also can be beneficial.

"Probably the best compromise is to go into your browser’s cookie settings and say ‘Accept cookies for a session only’ or ‘Throw away cookies after you quit your browser,’ " Eckersley said.

The Network Advertising Initiative also provides an all-in-one consumer opt-out of behavioral advertising for its member companies on its site, www.networkadvertising.org.

But there are other cookies, called Flash cookies, stored on Adobe software that a browser’s settings won’t change, according to the Annenberg School for Communication report. The report said these can even restore traditional cookies that get erased, a process called respawning.

Also note, the report said, that wiping out the cookies on your computer can eliminate the ones that tell Web sites you’ve decided to opt out.

What’s Google got on you? Two clicks of the mouse will reveal what Google’s behavioral tracking technology thinks interests you.

Click on Privacy in the small type next to the copyright date at the bottom of the search page. Once the Privacy Center pops up, click on Ads Preferences Manager on the left side of the screen.

The page should reveal the interests Google has divined about you from your online behavior.

Google selects among more than 580 potential interest categories, from horror films to the maritime transport industry. Relax, there’s no porn category.

The page also allows you to remove categories you don’t like and add ones you do, or opt out completely.

Correspondent Nathan Becker contributed to this report.

© 2009, YellowBrix, Inc.