Q. How is it that online advertisers seem to know that I'm thinking of buying a car or planning a big vacation? I find that creepy, so what can I do about it?
A. Welcome to the world of targeting, where online service providers know quite a bit about you and use that knowledge to try to sell higher-priced ads to subsidize their free services.
Google Inc. and other search engines have generated billions of dollars by running ads tied to a user's search terms or the keywords in an article. If you search for "Chicago trip," you might get an ad for a flight or hotel alongside the search results.
Yahoo Inc. and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL have promoted "behavioral targeting." Through small data files called "cookies," a Web portal can record the types of sites you've been visiting. It might presume that by visiting sites on Ford Escorts, you are looking to buy a new car. Auto ads could appear even when you're browsing articles on golf or Lindsay Lohan.
More recently, Internet startups such as Phorm Inc. and NebuAd Inc. have made deals with Internet access providers to gain insights into your surfing habits.
These companies all insist their tracking is anonymous, using an ID rather than an actual name, though privacy advocates say that with enough data, even anonymous profiles can be attached to particular people.
For example, you may visit many sites about Walla Walla, Wash., and vintage cars. That narrows down the possibilities if you happen to be the only person in Walla Walla driving a 1957 Chevy.
Some Internet users won't mind such deals and may even prefer them over random pitches for something they'd never, ever buy, but others could find the practice creepy - especially if ads for prescription drugs show up even after you've left the Web site on constipation.
The Network Advertising Initiative, a coalition that includes Yahoo and subsidiaries of Google, AOL and Microsoft Corp., has proposed industry guidelines requiring active consent from consumers before they can target based on some medical conditions, such as AIDS, cancer and abortion, and certain lifestyles, such as sexual orientation. (Many health conditions, like allergies, aren't deemed as sensitive).
The organization also lets you decline, or opt out of, targeted ads from its members simply by checking a few boxes at its Web site, NetworkAdvertising.org.
You can also clear your cookies from time to time to reset your tracking ID. In Firefox, go to "Clear Private Data" under the "Tools" menu. In the latest version of Internet Explorer, select the "Delete Browsing History" under "Tools." Be forewarned, though, that clearing cookies can also clear your opt-out preferences, so you'd have to do that again.
If you're sensitive you should also consider logging out when using Web portals like Yahoo. If you check your Yahoo e-mail account, for instance, you may not realize that the sign-on automatically carries over to other services such as search. So before conducting a search, just log out of your e-mail.
And if your Internet access provider invites you to participate in tracking, you can decline. It's not clear, though, how and when you're presented with that choice and how well access providers will explain the tracking when seeking consent
There is no foolproof way to avoid tracking entirely, short of staying off the Internet. Though the larger companies tend to be respectful of their users' privacy wishes, there are always bad apples on the lookout for ways to bypass your anti-tracking efforts.
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