Tracker, pixel, spyware, snitch: How to shop in secret

Trying to buy confidential office hardware, or a surprise gift? Advances in ad retargeting will broadcast your intentions across the internet and all your devices unless you cover your tracks.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor
Tracker pixel spyware snitch How to shop in secret
You'll be seeing red chairs everywhere.
Shopping online is more convenient than ever, but thanks to recent 'improvements' in consumer tracking and ad retargeting, it's almost impossible to keep your shopping list a secret.

If you don't want your coworkers, family, friends or competition to know what you're researching and buying, it's almost easier to keep your shopping secret by physically going to the mall than hopping on your laptop.

Your online shopping is no one's secret

This shopping season, as 2014 comes to a close, sees e-commerce -- consumer -- privacy under attack like never before, affecting our personal and business lives alike.

Thanks to advances in ad targeting and dynamic retargeting, cross-device ad retargeting, and trusted plugins like AdBlock Plus making ad deals with selected businesses, keeping your online shopping secret is much more than a matter of "incognito" or "private browsing" mode.

Google explains remarketing and ad retargeting, used by Facebook, AdRoll and others, quite well:

Remarketing lets you show ads to people who have visited your website or used your mobile app before.

When people leave your website without buying anything, for example, remarketing helps you reconnect with them by showing relevant ads as they browse the web, as they use mobile apps, or as they search on Google.

This is why keeping your searching and shopping a secret is becoming impossible -- unless you want to learn how to clean up your tracks, like some kind of shady, gift-giving criminal.

Say you want to find a red chair. You search Google, go to eBay, visit Macy's, look on Amazon, check out red chair videos on YouTube.

You only need to have done one of those things, and now that damn chair is going to follow you everywhere you go.

Thanks to ad retargeting across networks and devices, you'll be seeing red chairs everywhere Google ads are served in Google's enormous Google Display Network.

Google's AdSense Troubleshooter tells us we might see red chairs anywhere we go that displays Ads By Google if our red chair research includes any of the following factors:

  • Types of websites you visit, and mobile apps you have on your device.
  • The DoubleClick cookie on your browser and the settings in your Ads Settings.
  • Websites and apps you've visited that belong to businesses that advertise with Google.
  • Previous interactions with Google's ads or advertising services.
  • Your Google profile, including YouTube and Google+ activity.

Restricting your search to individual retailers still spreads your intentions across the Internet (as seen through your browser).

This will happen even if you didn't put a red chair in a shopping cart, and the red chair will plague you even if you don't buy one just to try and stop the ad retargeting madness.

Do you share a device or computer with friends, colleagues or family members? Ads will scream 'someone's shopping for a red chair!' from the New York Times to Yahoo!'s sign in page.

Do your loved ones or co-workers occasionally shoulder surf you? Facebook's News Feed and right-hand ad sidebar will rat you out for all the red chairs you looked for -- and many you didn't.

Do you ever hand your iPad to a friend, or have 'look at this video' moments on your computer with friends? Red chair, everywhere.

Do you share an Amazon Prime account with your family? Red chairs will be in your Amazon search history and suggestions.

Wherever Macy's has ad placement, anyone looking over your shoulder will see red chairs in the Macy's ad banner across the top of the page.

In Danny Sullivan's excellent 2013 post How Ad Retargeting Ruined Christmas, he described how his family's 'number one gift giver' -- his wife -- was having her surprises ruined on the family computer.

Visiting the Guardian's website to read the news revealed the exact items she'd considered buying the family for Christmas, plastered one-by-one across the front page top, in a Macy's ad banner.

But that was then, and this is now.

Single-pixel spyware

A year later, and things have only gotten worse for the consumer -- especially with this year's takeover of the consumer tracking market through the widespread adoption of the retargeting pixel, aka PixelTag or SmartPixel.

Not surprisingly, Facebook loves the tracking pixel.

Pixel tracking has long been used by spammers and malicious hackers; we have to suppose that the 'retargeting pixel' is what it looks like all grown up.

Maybe you think you'll be clever and only search through a popular home shopping app on your iPad, or only shop for the red chair from your Android phone.

The remarketing (or retargeting) of that red chair's ability to follow you, is no longer held back by devices, operating systems, apps, or cookies.

Facebook's conversion pixel is apparently great for cross-device tracking and targeting.

Google pitches retargeting to advertises as "the option to reach people after they've visited your website or used your mobile app. This could be when they're searching for your product, visiting other websites, and using other mobile apps."

Thanks to Apple's recent mobile ad retargeting revamp, you'll see ads for red chairs in apps you never even once searched for a red chair, as well as ads for red chairs on Apple devices never used in your red chair search.

Say, for example, a visitor to a retailer's iPhone app adds a pair of shoes to his cart but ultimately decide not to buy it.

In this scenario, the retailer will now be able to retarget that user with an ad for that exact pair - even in another app on his iPad.

When tapped, the ad would direct him back to his abandoned checkout page and automatically add the shoes to his online shopping cart.

E-commerce companies are a particular focus for the new feature as it enables them to retarget users across Apple devices based on items they have previously expressed interest in.

E-commerce apps can also track the items shoppers add to their digital wishlists and send ads for those items when they go on sale, and target ads based upon a person's shopping history.

Pitched as a way to 'solve the mobile cookie problem' for advertisers, Apple's new retargeting scheme also does away with our ability to stop tracking by deleting our cookies, as we do on our laptops and home PC's.

Combine the current state of aggressive retargeting with the amount of Personally identifiable information we're now realizing that apps are taking without our knowledge (or understanding), and the spying, tracking, and snitching these companies and their ad cohorts are doing on you would make the NSA and certain repressive nation-state regimes blush -- or turn green with envy.

This situation suits the online ad industry, and its gatekeepers Apple, Facebook and Google, just fine.

Google provides a list of places you can try to opt-out of tracking and retargeting, but anyone with a grain of sense knows it's a cobbled-together solution that's not really a solution, at all.

Of course, most of the services tell you that you can 'control your ad settings' or opt-out, but it's not easy, or very effective.

As Danny Sullivan wrote a year ago -- and things have only gotten worse -- "For those who don't like it, the option to opt-out is supposed to be easy."

Of course, temporarily disabling it only works for Macy's. You'll still see that product showing up if you view information about it on other sites, and if those sites also do retargeting.

Similarly, going for the "completely disable" option really doesn't completely disable retargeting. It completely disables it only for this particular ad network.

Other items you're considering may appear if merchants retarget using other ad networks.

Facebook's Ad Preferences tool only lets you click on a little "x" that appears if you mouse over an ad; click it and your red chair woes will be gone -- but the root problem remains and you'll need to click those little x's every time you look for a blue, or green chair.

You shouldn't have to go up against the entire digital advertising industry in order to keep your shopping habits from being broadcast to anyone near you, but this is the situation we're now in.

How to shop in secret

Whether it's a gift or a confidential piece of hardware for the office, or you simply don't like being spied on by all these faceless companies, there is no simple solution.

But there are precautions you can take.

  • Clearing cookies and history (search and browser) after you shop is the first thing many of us think of, and it will help with some of today's tracking.
  • Shopping in Incognito or 'private browsing' mode is also recommended.
  • To counter shoulder surfing, or ads served on multi-family computers and devices, ad block extensions and plug-ins (like AdBlockPlus) can stop some of the ads from coming through.
  • Some suggest using multi-user accounts for Chrome to partition user experience within the household, but you can't do this for kids under 13.
  • For retargeting trackers using your IP, you'll need to do your shopping through a VPN service to give it a different IP to log and track associated with your red chair searches.

The steps an ordinary consumer needs to take in order to shop in secret have become so extreme, it makes us all look like shady criminals -- but for the desire not to spoil surprise gift-giving, or confidential purchasing.

Good luck getting rid of the red chair.

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