Becoming Professional: A Blog

Advertiser Stalking Is the Real Online Ad Privacy Issue

Posted on: December 5, 2010

Image of a man in a mask taking a photo over a wall

Image by Anonymous9000 on Flickr. Click to see original location.

I read this post by Chris Zaharias, SVP of Sales at Dapper, an online advertising technology company. In it, he claims that the problem with ad-targeting is not the privacy intrusions, but rather it’s the excessive frequency of ads and poor targeting. Chris has a point, but privacy is still the issue, just not in the way most people think. Because of that, the solutions being suggested, both self-regulation and legislated regulation, aren’t solving the true privacy issue: advertiser stalking.

See, if a stalker just follows you around, you feel like your privacy has been invaded. He might never invade your home. He might even refrain from taking photos. But if the man is following you everywhere you go, yes, he is invading your privacy. You have the right to go places without someone intruding on your day. What’s the difference between being stalked by a person in real life from being stalked by an advertisement in the digital world?

Not much. Of course, the company can know about the websites you visit without showing you an ad. That’s what cookies do, after all, let the company know upon your arrival to the website that you’ve viewed such and such content already. They can even tell if you put something in your Amazon basket but didn’t buy. This could be viewed as an invasion of privacy. Except that you can often tell where a person has been in the real world by knowing a little bit about a person and extrapolating. That’s what demographic research does. It takes your characteristics and figures out the probabilities of you behaving in certain ways. True, with cookies, there is no probability. They know how you behave.

Still, considering the benefits of cookies (the added personalization, deals, and greater relevance they can make available for advertisers and consumers), I think it’s okay to let a company know what websites I’ve visited. As long as they don’t use this information to stalk me, that is. Again, I’m drawing a distinction between having information and using it to be creepy.

I seem to be one of the few people, who are making this distinction. The two proposed solutions to the “online advertising privacy issue” certainly don’t seem to be addressing it.

The FTC has provided a glimpse at what might become the legislated solution. They released a privacy report in which they suggested a universal “Do not track” option for consumers, according to this NPR article. Sounds like a solution to my problem, right? If you can’t track me, you can’t stalk me. This solution has been positioned as the “Do not call” list for the digital world, taking a person out of the personalization ecosystem of the web entirely. Of course, when you’re not tracked, you loose all the benefits of a personalized web. Considering that personalization seems to be where the web is going, this might not even be practical for consumers, regardless of their privacy concerns. As Braden Cox said in his recent blog post Do Not Track – A Single “Nuclear” Response for a Diversity of Choices,  what we really want is something in the middle of yes or no that “would represent an educated setting where consumers understand the tradeoffs of interest-based advertising – in return for tracking your preferences and using them to target ads to you, you get free content/services.” And if you don’t opt-out? They can follow you all over the web with impunity.

the icon that consumers see when the ad uses behavioral targeting

Image from the Self-Regulation Program. Click to view original location.

The other approach, which Braden suggests provides a middle ground solution, is self-regulation. The Self-Regulatory Program for Online Advertising is a group of large advertisers who have agreed to be open and transparent with how they use consumer data, provide an easy opt-out mechanism, and display the icon to the left in ads that lets consumers know when the advertisers are using cookie data. While it would be lovely to have more information, there are drawbacks. One is that this is a voluntary program, and even if you opt out from receiving targeted ads from all of the member advertisers, there are still plenty of advertisers who are not members. I think this approach is too hard for the consumer to keep track of because just like no one reads the fine print, no one will go to the Self-Regulatory Program’s website and go through the list of all their advertisers in order to weed out the ones they don’t trust.

And oh, it doesn’t prevent stalking.

So, I’d rather let the cookies work the way they work now, but with the advertiser’s respecting my space – though it would be nice to know when they are using my data and how. I can’t deny that. Any one in real life can observe me for a day and pretty accurately tell my routine and my habits. My grocery store probably knows more about me than an online advertiser, much less my credit card company! But online advertisers stalk us and our credit card companies don’t (unless you owe them money, and that’s another story).  If advertisers just stopped stalking, we wouldn’t have a problem because our privacy would not have been violated.


2 Responses to "Advertiser Stalking Is the Real Online Ad Privacy Issue"

Thanks for a nice article Kate. You’ve covered off the majority of the issues and done so in a very small space. Well done.

I’d like to pick up on two points: “value discussion” and “identity”.

On Value Discussion, I don’t think consumers truly understand the value that comes from this tracking. Value to the content owner from increased advertising revenues – and the value to the consumer in having access to content for free. I think content owners do a really lousy job of promoting that value discussion. They just assume that consumers inherently know it. My idea here is that if a consumer chooses to opt-out from tracking or cookies – that’s great. The consumers has the right. In return the content owner has the right to restrict access to the content either entirely or partially. So – if you block cookies – then you are given a choice: please join our paywall service or please find your content elsewhere.

On Identity – this one is more vague. Where it is true that cookies allow someone to follow the sites I visit, some searches I make and maybe what I put in my basket – they advertiser has no way to contact me directly and has no idea of my true identity. It’s like we are all walking around in very baggy jogging suits. Sometimes you can’t even make out if it is a man or a woman under the clothes. Sure – you might see a gray one vs. a pink one – and some you might even see a logo or two – but how much does the stalker really see? – not very much.

The “creepy” factor of behavioral targeting and tracking across websites is “creepy” in part because we can’t see who is doing it. It is not as creepy as it could be because the advertiser doesn’t know our name, our e-mail or any other personally identifiable information.

Thanks again,


Thank you for the complement and in-depth comment!

Your idea on the Value Discussion hit on a point that is coming up often in freemium business models, such as the UK-beloved Spotify. Ads are part of the free version, if you pay they’re gone. However, I don’t think that people inherently hate ads. Yes, there are really tacky ads and ones that interrupt what we are doing. Those are definitely unloved. But, there are unobtrusive ads, as well. Rather, I think people dislike it when they see the same ad all over the internet, regardless of website.

As for the Identity part of your comment, I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s not really any danger in it. It’s just a bit obtrusive and weird to think that someone, somewhere, knows that I did a search for Mustang cars. Do they know why or who I am? No. But they’ve figured out enough to stalk me with an ad. Most consumers do not realize that that is the extent of their knowledge, and it scares them. But, yes, it’s not dangerous.

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Who Am I?

I am a Digital Native who is trying to puzzle out what exactly that means. I share my thoughts on social media, digital business models, and PR here on this blog.

I am currently getting my Masters in Digital Marketing from Hult International Business School, having gotten my B.S. in Marketing from Arizona State University. Everything is on track and I am making headway towards my dream: World Domination... or being a productive, helpful citizen and marketer. Whichever comes first.

Don't hesitate to get in touch. I Tweet daily at @KateDavids and also have a science fiction and fantasy blog ( and Twitter (@Masked_Geek).

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