Haunted by a shopping cart, tracking me across the web

On Black Friday no less, I surfed a few of my favorite e-commerce sites. At one, I even started to fill a cart. Now, the contents of that cart track me and appear on every page I open.

On Black Friday no less, I surfed a few of my favorite e-commerce sites. At one, I even started to fill a shopping cart. Now, the contents of that cart and other products from that company track me relentlessly. They appear in ads and banners on every page I open — from youtube to news sites big and small and even to small blogs that accept ads. I like the products and I like the company. And, in this case, it is only annoyingly weird. But the practice of web tracking is much bigger than a few ads from a sad little shopping cart left at the checkout booth.

Tracking is a major “feature” of today’s Internet and its dependence on advertising for revenue. But every year, the tools available to the trackers become much more powerful.  Greater computer power, more bandwidth and access to growing online and offline databases of information about consumers have enabled real-time bidding by political campaigns, advertisers and websites based on real-time generation of scores about consumers on the web, as explained in “Who Do Online Advertisers Think You Are?,” appearing in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine by author/professor Jeffrey Rosen, who used different browsers and manipulation of his cookie files to create two different identities on the web:

“How did Republican Jeff and Democratic Jeff end up seeing entirely different ads? The answer is real-time bidding, a technology that’s transforming advertising, politics, news and the way we live online. Advertisers compete in an auction for the opportunity to send ads to individual consumers. Each time a company buys access to me, it can bombard me with an ad that will follow me no matter where I show up on the Web.”

The development of profiles based on “e-scores” used in real-time bidding was discussed in detail in a New York Times article in August, Secret E-Scores Chart Consumers’ Buying Power, by reporter Natasha Singer, who interviewed me based on a forthcoming Suffolk University Law Review article I’ve written with the Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester. Our article posits that real-time bidding helps enable decisions or offers, not mere ads, and that because those offers can be better, or worse, in terms of price or quality based on secret, virtually unregulated dossiers on consumers, that the practice needs reform. These are not your grandfather’s ads anymore.

While the companies have powerful tools to track us, our ability to stop them is limited, although there are steps we can take with varying impact, as this user-accessible (although somewhat technical) blog post, Tracking the Trackers: Self-Help Tools, by computer scientist Jonathan Mayer, explains:

“A number of technologies have been touted to offer consumers control over third-party web tracking. This post reviews the tools that are available and presents empirical evidence on their effectiveness. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Most desktop browsers currently do not support effective self-help tools. Mobile users are almost completely out of luck.
  2. Self-help tools vary substantially in performance.
  3. The most effective self-help tools block third-party advertising.”

The piece is from last September, and there may be new tools, but it explains and compares tools from EasyBlock to Ghostery, as well as do-not-track browser capabilities.

Its an arms race parallel to but not the same as that of the Cold War. The difference: In that buildup you could argue that both sides allocated massive resources and that, perhaps, both sides broke promises and treaties. In this war, it’s just one side that has real resources; it’s just one side that keeps  escalating the threat level; it’s just one side that refuses to cooperate or even to negotiate; and, it’s just one side that keeps breaking promises and treaties and changing the rules. For instance, they’ve tried to re-define and restrict “do-not-track” to allow them to collect information anyway while privacy and consumer groups contend that the original definition was “do not collect.”

Until Congress or the regulators step in and guarantee real privacy protections, consumers are losing the online privacy war. In January, Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX), co-chairs of the Bi-partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, will hold a Congressional briefing on the practices of virtually unregulated data brokers, whose massive information files on consumers are used to make the real-time bids. Jeff Chester is among the speakers.

FTC resources on Do-Not-Track. The FTC will also hold a workshop this Thursday, December 6, called The Big Picture: Comprehensive Data Collection. The all-day event is free and open to the public and it will be webcast and “live-tweeted” by the FTC, as well as others I am sure.


Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, PIRG

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.

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