Project Management

Behavioral targeting: Is transparency possible?

Security blogger Michael Kassner is not in favor of behavioral targeting. Yet, Jim Brock, CEO of Privacychoice, is trying to change his mind about its up-side and achieving transparency.

I have written extensively about the perils of behavioral targeting (BT) and how the advertising industry tried (still trying ala flash cookies) to sneak BT in under the radar. A writer friend of mine, knowing my interest, in this subject told me to check out Privacychoice. Valuing her opinion, I looked into it.

Jim Brock

I am glad I did. Mr. Jim Brock, the CEO of Privacychoice took the time to return my call, on a Sunday no less. Mr. Brock considers himself a technology entrepreneur; I would have to agree. His list of achievements is impressive:

  • J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School
  • Former partner at Venture Law Group and Amicus Capital
  • Formerly Senior Vice President, Communications and Consumer Services at Yahoo

Knowing Mr. Brock's credentials is important. He has little to prove. Yet, he is full of enthusiasm about his new company, Privacychoice. Mr. Brock has made a conscious decision to try and get security/privacy advocates such as myself and the advertising industry to play nice when it comes to behavioral targeting.

Advertising networks

Mr. Brock feels if done correctly, behavioral targeting could be a good thing. Improving our experience on the Web as well as providing needed product exposure for businesses. Mr. Brock, a realist also believes this technology will require complete transparency by all parties, otherwise it will fail.

I agree. My complaint about behavioral targeting is that it has been anything but transparent. For instance, I was under the assumption that Web hosts and ad agencies are involved in behavioral targeting. Mr. Brock cleared that up for me:

"Behavioral targeting is the realm of advertising networks."

Not knowing what an advertising network was, I referred to Wikipedia. The wiki divided advertising networks into the three following types:

  • Representative Networks: They represent the publications in their portfolio, with full transparency for the advertiser about where their ads will run. They typically promote high quality traffic at market prices and are heavily used by brand marketers.
  • Blind Networks: These companies offer low pricing to direct marketers in exchange for those marketers relinquishing control over where their ads will run.
  • Targeted Networks: These focus on specific targeting technologies such as behavioral or contextual. Targeted networks specialize in using consumer click stream data to enhance the value of the inventory they purchase.

A perfect example of lack of transparency would be the incident involving the New York Times Web site. The NYT Web host was not aware of malware (drive-by droppers) being introduced to the Web site via an advertising network until readers started complaining.

Privacychoice can help

Mr. Brock and the people at Privacychoice have created a single-stop Web site that allows everyone active on the Web to see what's going on behind the scene at their Web site, or one they are visiting. To accommodate this kind of visibility, Privacychoice uses the following Web pages:

Who's watching: This Web page displays popular sites, the advertising networks that deliver content to the Web site, and if any of the networks collect data about visitors.

Your choice: This Web page is where you go to install a single add-on to opt-out of multiple advertising networks.

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned Flash cookies, providing a link to an article where I describe how Flash cookies are becoming a problem. I talked to Mr. Brock about this and he mentioned:

"The next version of the Privacychoice opt-out tool will incorporate integrated control of Flash cookies, we've developed internal tools to start monitoring the incidence of use of Flash cookies by tracking companies."

I promise to let you know as soon as the new opt-out tool is available.

Check your site: This Web site allows you to check any Web site; including yours to see what advertising networks, if any are involved.

Trackerwatcher

For those using Firefox, Privacychoice has developed Trackerwatcher as an alternative to the "Check your site" Web page. The add-on allows you to see what advertising networks are providing ad content to the Web site you are currently visiting.

Trackerwatcher provides a link to every advertising network's privacy policy it finds as well as how to opt-out. The add-on also displays the following information about each of the advertising networks:

  • Anonymity: Does the advertising network collect personal information. If the network does, how is the information used.
  • Sharing: Does the network share anonymous individual information. If the network does, is the information shared as an individual profile or aggregated.
  • Out-of Bounds: Does the network promise not to collect sensitive information, such as health concerns or financial matters.
  • Deletion: Does the network promise to delete information collected about an individual user within 12 months.

The following screen shot displays some of the advertising networks that display content on Techrepublic's Web site:

Note: The Trackerwatcher icon may need to be added to the Web browser's navigational toolbar manually. To do so, go to View/Toolbars/Customize. Look for the TrackerWatcher icon and drag it to your toolbar. Final thoughts

Mr. Brock is convinced that behavioral targeting is helpful. I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude. It all depends on whether the process will allow full disclosure. For example, why make us opt-out? What's to hide? If behavioral targeting is useful, explain why and allow the user to opt-in.

I want to thank Mr. Brock for his time, Web site, and Firefox add-on. The service they provide helps us regain some important transparency.

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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