What is Targeted Advertising - Invasion to Privacy?

Online ads have always been annoying...but now they’re worse than ever.

Targeted Advertising - Invasion to Privacy?


What is ‘targeted advertising’?

Advertising is everywhere online, but we’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring it. To win back our attention, advertisers have adapted to our digital viewing habits by remembering what we read and buy online, then using this information to sell us things they think we might like. While it may sound strange, this practice, called targeted advertising, has become very common. Targeted advertising is a form of online advertising that focuses on the specific traits, interests, and preferences of a consumer. Advertisers discover this information by tracking your activity on the Internet.

How does it work?

Here’s one of the most common methods:

Consider what happens when you shop online for a wristwatch. You visit a few watch websites and the next thing you know, a watch advertisement is following you everywhere. On your computer, it’s loading in your Facebook feed. On your phone, it’s popping up on Instagram. In your web browser on either, it’s appearing on news sites that have nothing to do with watches. Even if you end up ordering the watch, the ads continue trailing you everywhere. They’re stalker ads. And they are a symptom of how online ads are becoming increasingly targeted and persistent. 

Tracking technologies like web cookies are collecting information about our browsing activities from site to site. The files used to track individuals — called cookies —are there to help keep the internet functioning. It’s cookies that keep you logged in to certain websites, or keep your shopping cart filled while you browse. Cookies can also tell advertisers what products or websites you’ve interacted with, allowing companies to advertise that product or similar products to you in a process called remarketing. Third-party data providers can also use what they’ve seen about what you’re interested in and have interacted with online — or your age, location, gender, or other details — to create audience lists that advertisers use to find a market for their ads. 

Aside from cookies, advertisers also learn about you in other ways, like checking your search engine history and finding your personal information on social media. 

Isn’t this an invasion of my privacy? 

Targeted advertising could be seen as an invasion of privacy. However, remember that all of the information you submit to the Internet can be tracked, whether it be search engine requests, social media updates, or the websites you visit. And if it can be tracked, this information may return to you in the form of a targeted ad. The more advertisers know about you, the more they assume about your buying habits. Age, gender, income, relationship status: Advertisers will take whatever they can get if it means they could sell you something. 

These ads can also follow you across different devices. The advertisers that collect and use this data claim to not keep sensitive personal information on file, but it's difficult to figure out exactly what these big-data  advertisers know. Unfortunately, this type of data collection is becoming the norm and currently there are no regulations against it, meaning it will likely be around for years. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to fight back against the ads.

How Advertisers Collect Your Information

In order to deliver custom ads, companies first need to know something about you. Here are a few ways they gather that information:

Clickstream Data

In custom advertising, the term clickstream refers to a record of Web pages you've visited. This data is collected using a tiny text file called a cookie, which a site sends to your computer so it can track your movements among its pages. This information helps them tailor advertising to specific patrons.
Search Data. They analyze search terms and user habits
to place targeted advertising alongside regular search
results and often allow companies to pay them for a
higher position among the results for particular keywords.

Purchase Data

Ever notice how Web sites like Amazon will recommend items that remind you of other items you've purchased or viewed in the past? That's because online stores often use cookies or user registration to keep track of what you buy -- and even what you put in your cart and later abandon -- in an effort to personalize your shopping experience.

Profile Data

When you create a profile on a social networking site such as Facebook you probably enter information about your age, religion, education, political views, interests and favourite movies, music and books so your friends can get to know you better. What you may not know is that these sites also use that data to provide you with custom advertising. Advertisers select lists to send their ads to, and cookies can allow advertisements to follow an individual from website to website, or app to app.

How can I stop these ads?

First, a good rule of thumb for browsing online: Assume that nothing you do online is private. Next, if you simply want to stop seeing ads, download an ad blocker for your web browser, which should get rid of most of them. To prevent advertisers from tracking your information altogether, you have a few options:
  • Go to the Privacy settings of your web browser, then delete your cookies and ask websites not to track you.
  • Visit an opt-out site like About Ads and request that participating ad agencies stop tracking your information.
  • While it will not completely eliminate targeted ads, it will significantly reduce them.
  • Periodically, clear your cookies and purge your Google ad history.
  • If possible, hide the annoying ad. On some web ads, like those served by Google and Facebook, there is a tiny button in the top-right corner that you can click on to hide the ad.

Can I bring that up a notch?

There are more extreme methods to take if you want to prevent targeted ads from ever following you around. 

Install an ad blocker

For Android users, Google banned many ad blockers from its official Play app store, so the simplest way to block ads is by using a private web browser.) or use a private browser. They are handy when you want to do a discreet web search. It will probably take you a couple of hours to set yourself up to prevent ads from haunting you. It is a grueling process.

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