IBJOpinion

COTA: Leaving tracks—and erasing them—on the info superhighway

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Jim Cota

Last month, I wrote about the way marketers collect data about consumers and use it to target them. Or, in marketing words, “use it to provide more accurate and effective results based on their interests.”

Regardless of how it’s defined, the result is the same: The more they know about you, the more uniquely targeted the advertising becomes. One of the best sources of the data? Your own Web browser.

As you go online from site to site, you leave a trail. Some of these breadcrumbs are inconspicuous and intended to improve your experience. For example, if you visit Amazon.com and put a few items in your cart, those items will be there waiting for you when you come back. Convenient? Yes. Expected? Yes. But it goes beyond that. Leave the site and head somewhere to catch up on the news and, voila, there’s an ad for the very product you put in the Amazon cart.

This technique, called remarketing, is certainly effective. And you could argue that it’s helpful for both you and the advertiser. But now that there are thousands of separate tracking companies—yes, thousands—it’s no longer just companies that have earned your trust that are doing the tracking.

In most cases, the information they’re tracking is “anonymous.” I’ve added quotes here to indicate the tenuous nature of the anonymity. Back in 2010, a data breach at Facebook allowed advertisers to identify, by name, people who clicked on their ads.

It was that data breach that led former Google engineer Brian Kennish to write a few lines of code to block that traffic from being sent to Facebook. He called it “Facebook Disconnect” and figured his work was done. But he was just getting started. More than 50,000 people downloaded the extension in two weeks.

“I realized people were starting to care about privacy,” Kennish said.

Since then, anti-tracking and anti-cookie extensions have been growing in popularity. These little tools are most often extensions that work with your Web browser. I’ve been using one called Ghostery (www.ghostery.com) for the past year or so and I’ve recently switched to Kennish’s latest version, Disconnect (www.disconnect.me). Both are exceptional at helping you leave fewer tracks wherever you go, but Disconnect does it with slightly more panache.

For one thing, it’s optimized for speed. Each of those tracking modules is sending data to an outside source, and each connection slows down your Internet connection and your page rendering time—sometimes significantly. Disconnect claims to help pages load 27 percent faster while blocking 2,000 tracking sites. It also offers an easy way to encrypt all the data that transfers through your browser, adding an extra layer of security.

Both Ghostery and Disconnect work right “out of the box,” but have a wide range of customization to allow you to decide what to share with whom. The goal, according to Kennish, is to allow users “to control who does what with their data online.”

Consumer-rights advocates have long rallied for an industry standard to give them control over the type and amount of data shared. But digital advertisers have fought against standards. As a company that helps people sell things, I certainly understand their concern. But I also understand the desire for full disclosure and control when it comes to privacy.

So until these two groups reach some accord, filters like Disconnect and Ghostery put the control of your data back where it belongs—with you.•

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Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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