I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web

Adnetik also offers a service called "retargeting" that another A-company, AdRoll, specializes in. Here's how it works. Let's say you're an online shoe merchant. Someone comes to your store but doesn't purchase anything. While they're there, you drop a cookie on them. Thereafter you can target ads to them, knowing that they're at least mildly interested. Even better, you can drop cookies on everyone who comes to look at shoes and then watch to see who comes back to buy. Those people become your training data, and soon you're only "retargeting" those people with a data profile that indicates that they're likely to purchase something from you eventually. It's slick, especially if people don't notice that the pairs of shoes they found the willpower not to purchase just happen to be showing up on their favorite gardening sites.

There are many powerful things you can do once you've got data on a user, so the big worries for online advertisers shift to the inventory itself.  Purchasing a page in a magazine is a process through which advertisers have significant control; but these types of online ads could conceivably run anywhere. After all, many ad networks need all the inventory they can get, so they sign up all kinds of content providers. And that's where our third company comes into play.

AdExpose, now a comScore company, watches where and how ads are run to determine if their purchasers got their money's worth. "Up to 80% of interactive ads are sold and resold through third parties," they put it on their website. "This daisychaining brings down the value of online ads and advertisers don't always know where their ads have run." To solve that problem, AdExpose claims to provide independent verification of an ad's placement.

All three companies want to know as much about me and what's on my screen as they possibly can, although they have different reasons for their interest. None of them seem like evil companies, nor are they singular companies. Like much of this industry, they seem to believe in what they're doing. They deliver more relevant advertising to consumers and that makes more money for companies. They are simply tools to improve the grip strength of the invisible hand.

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And yet, the revelation that 105 different outfits were collecting and presumably selling data about me on the Internet gives me pause. It's not just Google or Facebook or Yahoo. There are literally dozens and dozens of these companies and the average user has no idea what they do or how they work. We just know that for some reason, at one point or another, an organization dropped a cookie on us and have created a file on some server, steadily accumulating clicks and habits that will eventually be mined and marketed.

The online advertising industry argues that technology is changing so rapidly that regulation is not the answer to my queasiness about all that data going off to who-knows-where. The problem, however, is that the industry's version of self-regulation is not one that most people would expect or agree with, as I found out myself.

After running Collusion for a few days, I wanted to see if there was an easy method to stop data collection. Naively, I went to the self-regulatory site run by the Network Advertising Initiative and completed their "Opt Out" form. I did so for the dozens of companies listed and I would say that it was a simple and nominally effective process. That said, I wasn't sure if data would stop being collected on me or not. The site itself does not say that data collection will stop, but it's also not clear that data collection will continue. In fact, the overview of NAI's principles freely mixes talk about how the organization's code "limits the types of data that member companies can use" with information about the opt-out process.

After opting out, I went back to Collusion to see if companies were still tracking me. I found that many, many companies appeared to be logging data for me. According to Mozilla, the current version of Collusion does not allow me to see precisely what companies are still tracking, but Stanford researchers using Collusion found that at least some companies continue to collect data. All that I had "opted out" of was receiving targeted ads, not data collection. There is no way, through the companies' own self-regulatory apparatus, to stop being tracked online. None.

After those Stanford researchers posted their results to a university blog, they received a sharp response from the NAI's then-chief, Chuck Curran.

In essence, Curran argued that users do not have the right to *not* be tracked. "We've long recognized that consumers should be provided a choice about whether data about their likely interests can be used to make their ads more relevant," he wrote. "But the NAI code also recognizes that companies sometimes need to continue to collect data for operational reasons that are separate from ad targeting based on a user's online behavior."

Companies "need to continue to collect data," but that contrasts directly with users desire "not to be tracked." The only right that online advertisers are willing to give users is the ability not to have ads served to them based on their web histories. Curran himself admits this: "There is a vital distinction between limiting the use of online data for ad targeting, and banning data collection outright."

But based on the scant survey and anecdotal data that we have available, when users opt out preventing data collection is *precisely* what they are after.

In preliminary results from a survey conducted last year, Aleecia McDonald, a fellow at Stanford Center for Internet and Society, found that users expected a lot more from the current set of tools than those tools deliver. The largest percentage of her survey group (34 percent) who looked at the NAI's opt-out page thought that it was "a website that lets you tell companies not to collect data about you." For browser-based "Do Not Track" tools, a full 61 percent of respondents expected that if they clicked such a button, no data would be collected about them.

Do Not Track tools have become a major point of contention. The idea is that if you enable one in your browser, when you arrive at The New York Times, you send a herald out ahead of you that says, "Do not collect data about me." Members of the NAI have agreed, in principle, to follow the DNT provisions, but now the debate has shifted to the details.

There is a fascinating scrum over what "Do Not Track" tools should do and what orders websites will have to respect from users. The Digital Advertising Alliance (of which the NAI is a part), the Federal Trade Commission, W3C, the Internet Advertising Bureau (also part of the DAA), and privacy researchers at academic institutions are all involved. In November, the DAA put out a new set of principles that contain some good ideas like the prohibition of "collection, use or transfer of Internet surfing data across Websites for determination of a consumer's eligibility for employment, credit standing, healthcare treatment and insurance."

This week, the White House seemed to side with privacy advocates who want to limit collection, not just uses. Its Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights pushes companies to allow users to "exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it." The DAA heralded its own participation in the White House process, though even it noted this is the beginning of a long journey.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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