Behavioral Targeting: $4.4 Billion of Ad Messages Just for YOU

The truth about behavioral targeting: Internet Scambusters #332

Advertisers have always made it their business to track down and reach consumers who could be potential customers. Some of the techniques that do this are called “behavioral targeting.”

More specifically, behavioral targeting uses information collected from a person’s web browsing behavior (such as the websites they visit or the searches they make on search engines) to select which ads to display to that person.

Behavioral targeting is then used so people can see ads relevant to their interests or locality as they surf the web.

But advances in technology could help advertisers learn a lot more about us. In this week’s issue, we explain what’s going on (since it is not a simple issue), is it good or bad, and what you can do to strengthen your privacy.

Let’s get started…

Behavioral Targeting: $4.4 Billion of Ad Messages Just for YOU

Two or three years from now, experts say that US firms will be spending around $4.4 billion on behavioral targeting — directing advertisements specifically to your PC or ours.

Advertisers watch what you do, which sites you visit, what you like to buy, where you live, and then run onscreen ads, burst in pop-ups or even send you emails that coincide with your surfing habits and preferences.

Ever noticed, for instance, ads that offer services or products in your hometown, or the kind of products you’ve recently been searching for?

That may be because when you look for particular things online, a small marker, called a cookie, is placed on your computer.

(They’re also used so membership sites can recognize existing members when they visit and tailor certain pages just for them. If you want to know more about cookies, we suggest you visit this page about cookies on

As for knowing where you live, again some websites can identify your location by your computer’s unique Internet identifier, the IP address as it’s called, and can sometimes tell which town you’re in.

In many ways all this is a good idea. It sure can save you a lot of time and provide benefits if the ads meet your needs.

And if you use popular online stores like Amazon, you’ll notice they keep track not only of your purchases but also the things you look at.

Then they follow up with related deals they hope will catch your eye. That’s just sound business sense. And often, it’s very helpful.

The question with behavioral targeting is: What’s OK and what’s not? Where do you draw the line?

And, most importantly, how can you tell who’s watching you and what can you do to stop them if you feel uncomfortable with it?

It’s one thing to have a cookie that says you’re interested in computers. It doesn’t identify who you are by name, just your computer.

It’s quite another when, as happened recently, big Internet Service Providers (ISPs) saw a commercial opportunity and said they would start monitoring which sites their customers visited, so that, for instance, they could provide a computer vendor with a whole list of potential buyers.

Of course, precisely this sort of thing happens when you get a survey form in your snail-mail that asks whether you’re considering buying this or that in the next six months.

But at least you have the choice of not telling!

More worryingly, another type of behavioral targeting technology has recently been invented (Deep Packet Inspection, if you want to know the term) that allows firms, working with your ISP, to discover a lot more about what’s going on with your PC.

Ultimately, it could enable them to build up a detailed picture of us, including personal information, maybe even our names (though the firms deny this), without us being in the slightest bit aware of it.

Now, we believe that’s not good. OK, it’s all supposed to be in the pursuit of successfully targeted advertising. But just imagine what would happen with it in the wrong hands! In theory, that information could be used against us as well as to help us.

Listen to what Internet “inventor” Tim Berners-Lee said about it to the British parliament in March: “It is very important that you can use the Internet without a thought that, when we click, a third party will know what we clicked on in a way that might affect how our insurance premium changes, whether we can get life insurance or another job.”

And the Federal Trade Commission said recently: “While behavioral advertising provides benefits to consumers in the form of free Web content and personalized ads that many consumers value, the practice itself is largely invisible and unknown to consumers.”

In February 2009, the FTC issued new guidelines aimed at behavioral targeting firms. This laid down 4 principles for behavioral targeting:

  1. Every website using behavioral targeting must carry a statement saying what they’re doing and how they use the info.
  2. Data can only be retained if it’s being used for a legitimate business (or law enforcement) need.
  3. Companies using behavioral targeting must keep their promises about data protection, even if they merge with other firms. If they change their policies, they must let users know.
  4. Firms must get users’ permission to collect info before they start doing it.

There is still a good deal of debate about these guidelines.

As you know, Scambusters is supported by advertising, including Google AdSense. We recently modified our privacy policy to comply with Google’s policies, which may use some forms of behavioral targeting we are comfortable with on our sites — and to give specific instructions of how people can opt out if they so choose.

Are you worried about behavioral targeting and your privacy? A survey by Burst Media earlier this year said more than 80% of us are.

There may not be a lot you can do to protect yourself against some of the more recent technology developments at the ISP end but there are things you can consider doing to conceal your tracks on your own PC from conventional behavior gathering.

Here are some of the things you can do to make yourself more elusive if you choose to:

  1. Decide what level of cookie tracking is acceptable to you and then adjust your browser accordingly. Use your browser’s “Help” menu to find out how to do this.
  2. If you want to be totally anonymous when online, use special software that will do just that. Google “anonymous surfing.” Use reputable sites — those who test programs for spyware — for downloads.
  3. Use nicknames and don’t give your address or phone number where they’re not particularly needed.
  4. Read the fine print of the terms and conditions for sites and services you sign up for. Often you will see they take the right, by default, to use your personal information for marketing.
  5. Consider the possibility of opting out. Though not failsafe, there is one organization that represents many of the big behavioral targeting players. It’s called the Network Advertising Initiative and visiting their website enables you to opt out of all its member organizations’ activities.
  6. A slow but very effective solution is called Tor. It will safeguard your privacy at the expense of being an ultra-slow browsing experience.

We’ve tried to avoid those “Big Brother” scare tactics that accompany many of the stories about online privacy and behavioral targeting. Advertising is not evil — it’s the lifeblood of commerce.

We know many people will ask if we don’t include our personal approach, so here it is:

We accept cookies, rarely surf anonymously or use Tor, and are careful about reputable sites and spyware. We use encrypted web and secure email from public wifi hotspots. We don’t give out our address or phone numbers unless they are needed, we try to read the fine print, and we have opted out of a lot of junk mail with our LifeLock subscription. (We’re not saying this approach is right for you — it’s simply what we do.)

We also believe it’s important to keep tabs on what the industry is doing and to know your rights. We hope this has been helpful.

Time to conclude for today — have a great week!