Archive for February, 2010

“It’s about the websites, stupid.”

February 20, 2010

Much time and energy is being expended to build systems to verify compliance with the notice-and-opt-out framework for online behavioral advertising. The notion is that an independent organization can confirm that behaviorally targeted ads always are accompanied by the proper notice-and-choice disclosure, and that ad delivery companies refrain from showing behaviorally targeted ads to consumers who have opted-out.

The pace of technological development suggests that these efforts are misguided.

To understand why, consider these two recent developments:

  • Panopticlick, which demonstrates that operating system and browser configurations are sufficiently unique to identify a computer over time, even without using cookies, supercookies or any other affirmative means of tracking.
  • Scout Analytics’ new tracking service, which identifies a user (not a computer) based on the unique signature provided by how they type and use their mouse.

Given the huge value in behavioral targeting, you can expect to see a whole host of approaches like these, which offer far greater accuracy and durability. Because these technologies work purely on the backend, they do not leave artifacts like cookies that provide a forensic means to determine when tracking is occurring.

It is conceivable that behavioral targeting might be detectable through continuous correlation between behaviors demonstrated and the subject matter of advertising delivered, in a panel or other test environment; but the likely effectiveness and necessary scale of such a system are in the realm of speculation.

In practical terms, only two things really matter:

  1. The decisions that websites make about which companies are allowed to collect information about users, which come into sharper focus as those decisions face public and regulatory scrutiny.
  2. The published policies and reputations of tracking companies, supported by the audits and other oversight provided by organizations like the NAI and TRUSTe, which websites can rely upon in making those decisions.

PrivacyChoice Reloaded: more info + more choices

February 3, 2010

Today we have completed a significant upgrade to PrivacyChoice, where consumers can learn about behavioral advertising and their privacy options. In addition to a cleaner, more compact interface, here the highlights of this release:

  1. More summary information. On our homepage you now see a more meaningful summary of the ad-delivery practices for each website, including the total number of companies collecting information, how many of them are industry-accountable (through the Network Advertising Initiative) and how many have policy terms that raise questions (usually lack of published policies on deletion or handling of sensitive information). When users view privacy policy excerpts for any company, terms with questions are now highlighted.
  2. More choices. Obviously, PrivacyChoice is only one of many ways that users can manage their privacy when it comes to ad targeting. Other options include the NAI’s site, the TACO Firefox add-on and a host of more direct tools to change browser settings or block advertising altogether. Now we present all of those choices together with some advice about why users might pick one over another.
  3. Flash-cookie control. When users opt-out of tracking by an ad-delivery company, the PrivacyChoice Opt-out add-on for Firefox now also automatically deletes known Flash cookies (local stored objects) for that network (and keeps them deleted), without affecting beneficial Flash cookies that may be in use for other sites.
  4. PrivacyChoice preferences tab. We now provide a separate tab for users who have made any opt-outs through PrivacyChoice, which for add-on users is also accessible through the Tools menu in Firefox. Users can always come to this page to see their detailed status across all networks, and their rules-based setting (complete, selective or no rule).
  5. PrivacyChoice Index integration. Users now have direct links to the PrivacyChoice Index of tracking companies, which provides detailed information on privacy practices, policies and accountability.

As always, your continued feedback is invaluable as we continue to refine and extend this service. Thanks!