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Exposing The Online Tracking Of Consumers By Retailers

This MediaPost article really caught my attention. It seems that Cathy Dwyer, a professor at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, sat students in front a computer and showed them all of the ways companies track their online usage. After witnessing this tracking the students' complacency turned to outrage:

"I do this with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, and once they find out this is going on they go ballistic. A few of them in one of my classes canceled their Facebook accounts..."

This online tracking includes a multitude of browser cookies and Web beacons which companies rarely or never disclose in their Web site Terms of Conditions and Privacy policies. To better understand this, Dwyer studied the site:

"... Dwyer discovered, for instance, that a JavaScript downloaded to the browser came from Atlas and contained seven one by one image files from a range of behavioral networks. In all, Dwyer detected nine Web beacons dropped on the client machine, and one Omniture cookie that passed back a list of installed software on the machine."

This is important because, a) of the secrecy -- consumers are not informed of both the tracking activity and the wide range of companies involved, and b) it happens without the consumer's consent:

"None of the companies linked to these nine Web beacons are mentioned in Levi's privacy policy... The only third party mentioned is the digital advertising provider Avenue A, but none of these Web beacons link to Avenue A... this study shows the amount of data collected and shared with third parties is much higher than what is described in the Levi's privacy policy. Levi's customers are not asked to consent to these practices, and the partners that Levi's shares information with are not identified."

This secret targeted advertising without consent is also important because:

"...anonymity does not equal privacy. Privacy is not just a matter of controlling what information about oneself is disclosed to or by a third party. Dwyer and others contend that undisclosed behavioral tracking compromises our autonomy in the market."

In other words, consumers can't make informed choices about the products and services we buy, when our online experience is shaped and affected without our knowledge. Reportedly, Dwyer will present her research findings at the 15th Americas Conference on Information Systems in a paper titled, "Behavioral Targeting: a Case Study of Consumer Tracking on"

If this bothers you (and I hope that it does), learn more about targeted advertising (a/k/a behavioral targeting). Then, write to your favorite retailers and demand more disclosure in their Web site Terms of Service and Privacy policies. If that doesn't work, write to your elected officials in Congress and demand legislation for more disclosure.


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