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Ad-to-ad combat: Covering your Web tracks

You're worried about the constant advance of ads tied to your behavior online. You're not going to wait for Congress to get around to mandating clear privacy protections online, as suggested last week in a modest proposal.
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Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld on

You're worried about the constant advance of ads tied to your behavior online. You're not going to wait for Congress to get around to mandating clear privacy protections online, as suggested last week in a modest proposal.

What's an avid Web user to do?

Ideally, find a way to browse the Web anonymously, without Google, Yahoo or an Internet service provider (aka cable or telephone company) being able to identify you as you move about. Being able to target ads based on your age, income, geography and online behavior raises the price that can be charged an advertiser and it's not surprising that what really interests Carl Icahn and Microsoft about Yahoo is its search business, where ads can be targeted to stated interests as well.

One company wanting to build a business on combating the rise of such targeted advertising based on user movement is called Anchorfree.

It supplies a downloadable piece of software called, somewhat misleadingly, HotSpot Shield. It's designed to protect the identity of Web surfers when they are browsing in public wifi locations. But the basic premise works from the home or office desktop, as well.

Also see: A Modest Privacy Proposal

Senate, Web ad titans joust over behavioral targeting

The shield encrypts all data coming into and going out of a personal computer and tunnels it through a virtual private network. To Google or Yahoo, all the users of the shield are seen as "Anchorfree," not as individuals.

This "prevents web publishers from creating persistent IP-based profiles,'' says executive vice president, strategy & products Mark Smith.

The price of the shield is right, by normal Internet standards. The HotSpot Shield is a free download, that among other things protects you email, instant messages and credit card information in transit.

But there is a cost, of sorts. Ads. You may get shielded from having your identity or behavior tracked while using the AnchorFree VPN, but you will get more ads on your screen. While in use, an extra layer of banner ads appear at the top and some interstitial ads also show up, during use.

These ads, interestingly, are targeted in modest ways.

Smith's explanation:

1. Interstitials: On a small percentage of traffic, users are asked to identify categories of interest to them and interstitials will be served based on those voluntary expressions of interests. 2. Frame ads: The service correlates a domain request (e.g. www.mtv.com) to a pre-set category of advertising (e.g. Media and entertainment). That designation is then passed into the ad serving system. If there is a "media and entertainment" ad in th system, it's placed in the ad frame as it is constructed. If not, a house ad might get inserted.

Consider this ad to ad combat. Maybe it's a worthwhile "evil" to add more ads to your screen, while worrying about what happens when Web sites, services and Internet access providers build profiles on you, for marketing and other purposes you have no control over.

But, let it be noted that during my tests of the VPN last week, my email from my home office was not protected by AnchorFree , it was blocked.

The company's looking into the problem. But, at least in this case, until that's fixed, there's little point in using this kind of ''protection. "

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