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Nosy cookies: How advertisers use scripts to find out who you are

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Advertisers can discover identifiable information about you based on your browsing habits and linked accounts through cookies. (Source: MGN) Advertisers can discover identifiable information about you based on your browsing habits and linked accounts through cookies. (Source: MGN)

(RNN) - Internet cookies are a familiar part of web surfing, but most people probably don't realize how much they can change your browsing experience.

Cookies and scripts you pick up as you browse sites can decide which advertisements you see, even changing the price of items you shop for.

Essentially, online, privacy is all but nonexistent if you don't watch out for yourself.

Behavioral, or tailored, advertising uses information collected about you to determine specific advertisements or content to show you based on your behavior.

Advertising on TV, in a magazine or on the walls of sports stadium have become a part of life in America. Ad revenues pay for some or all of entertainment, sports and news that might be unavailable without the added money.

But did you know that advertisements can also inform your family you're pregnant before you do? That's what happened to a teenage girl from Florida who began receiving advertisements from Target for baby supplies.

That may be an isolated, extreme example but the same sort of thing happens every day, every minute, every second online where data mining is made so much easier by the use of tracking devices that tell websites your browsing and search history, social media accounts, demographics and more.

Tailored advertising is different from targeted advertising, which makes ads fit the content being viewed: like when you see local restaurant ads on your local news station, or department store ads when you click through photos from a fashion show. The reasoning is that anyone looking at the site would find the ads relevant.

But behavioral advertising takes it a step further, skipping past the general audience to go straight for you.

The information gathered can include your age and gender, your address, your credit score, even how much your house is worth.

It even includes health information according to a study done by University of Southern California associate professor Marco D. Huesch. He also found several free, public-health websites that gave their information to third-party advertisers.

Behavioral action experiment

We did a simple experiment in our newsroom, a few of us assuming online personas to browse and search the web to see what kind of cookies we picked up.

These personalities ranged from a preteen obsessed with One Direction and Justin Bieber, to middle-aged housewives who enjoy gardening and a farmer who likes to travel.

We cleared our browser history and deleted our Google Chrome accounts, then turned our browser cookies on, accepted all content, opened up the browser, and let loose with a flurry of searches through Google and other sites, looking for things we thought would be relevant to our personas' interests.

It didn't take long, 48 hours in fact, for the first tailored advertisements to show up. That farmer started seeing advertisements for things like State Farm insurance and travel sites like Hotline or even Delta Airlines. The housewife began seeing advertisements for AARP.

You can find what demographic Google says you fall under by going to google.com/ads/preferences.

How it's regulated

According to the DMA Corporate Responsibility Resource Center, which promotes "responsible data-driven marketing," responsible behavioral advertising "relies on anonymous, aggregated data to deliver an ad to a computer based on the computer's browser activity, not the activities of a specific individual."

Currently, advertising is largely self-regulated. The Federal Trade Commission and Better Business Bureau largely agree with self-regulation, and many advertising agencies partner with national trade organizations like the IAB, which in turn make promises to protect privacy with programs like the Digital Advertising Alliance.

But a lengthy study done by University of Colorado Law School associate professor Paul Ohm found that self-regulation when it comes to user privacy and anonymity simply doesn't work, and that the failure of anonymous data is a disruption to privacy law.

"Clever adversaries can often re-identify or de-anonymize the people hidden in an anonymized database," he wrote, adding that simply erasing names and social security numbers won't preserve anonymity.

"How many other people in the United States share your specific combination of ZIP code, birth date (including year) and sex," he asked. "According to a landmark study, for 87 percent of the American population, the answer is zero; these three pieces of information uniquely identify each of them."

Another study by  the University of Pennsylvania and the Berkeley Centre for Law and Technology found that 66 percent of adults in the U.S. do not want advertising based on what advertisers perceive as their interests. And when it was explained what methods advertisers use to collect that information, the number of people who didn't want that type of advertising rose to between 73 and 86 percent.

There are ways to prevent behavioral advertising, and they all fall back on keeping good privacy practices across the board on your devices, your accounts and the public presence you put online.

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