My wife and I each have smart phones and use our own separate PC’s at home, but our mobile devices and computers are interchangeable by necessity of the moment.  For example, if I want to check the weather and her phone is within reach—I use it, and if she needs directions home and my phone is closest, it becomes our Navigator.  But, with recent-call-history and logs of texts, this complicates things when I am tip-toeing around contacting family and friends to organize and get RSVP’s for a surprise party for her.  But the larger obstacle that quickly became evident was the over use of Internet tracking while I shopped online.  Search something on Ebay, and the next time anyone opens Ebay (including your wife days before her birthday) they can clearly see pictures of similar “Interests you follow”.  On Amazon, it’s the same practice, but it is more blatantly titled “Your recently viewed items.”   In my case, I wanted to surprise my wife with a new dress and visited a particular store online.  After deciding not to purchase that dress, I saw that same dress as a targeted advertisement on almost every webpage I went to, whether it was a reputable news outlet site, a sports site or the webpage of my local newspaper.   I’ll be honest, it can creep you out, almost as if you’re being stalked by these retailers.  Personal shopping isn’t so personal anymore.

What is happening is a common practice called “retargeting”, and it is an increasingly popular method for digital marketers to display their ads to potential customers.  Retargeting involves displaying follow-up advertisements on recently and specifically viewed items after the user has left an advertiser’s website. The retargeting practice helps companies advertise to users (like me with my wife’s dress) who leave without a purchase (a high percentage of visitors), and draw them back to close the sale.   It is a low-cost method of advertisement that is very effective at getting already interested users back to the retailer’s site and finalizing the purchase— giving the company a nice Return on Investment (ROI).  And while marketing and advertisement companies are constantly coming up with new methods (ie. retargeting) to increase the display frequency and viewership of retailer’s digital ads, there are some underlying privacy concerns that should be taken into account.

How does retargeting work? Retargeting tags website visitors with a usually invisible identifier, such as a web cookie (a small piece of data communicated from a website and stored in a user’s web browser while the user is browsing that website).  Other forms of identifiers may include an email or tracking pixel and their primary function is to monitor the activity of customers at a site.  After tagged, that visitor is shown ads (for the website or a specifically searched product) all over the Internet with the help of that identifier.   It can be a bit unsettling to realize the basics of retargeting, and that all of the information relating to your browsing behavior is being tracked and stored.  This stored data can get misused or stolen.

What can you do to minimize retargeting?

1) Customize your browser setting as per your need. For example, managing and deleting cookies. [Please note that different web browsers have different settings and options.]

For Internet Explorer:

To delete cookies

-Open Internet Explorer for the desktop.
– Tap or click the Tools button, point to Safety, and then tap or click Delete browsing history.
– Select the Cookies check box, and then tap or click Delete.

To block or allow cookies

-Open Internet Explorer for the desktop.
– Tap or click the Tools button, and then tap or click Internet options.
– Tap or click the Privacy tab, and then, under Settings, move the slider to the top to block all cookies or the bottom to allow all cookies, and then tap or click OK

Additionally, Internet Explorer 10 also introduced a new privacy feature called Do Not Track. When the Do Not Track feature in Internet Explorer is turned on, Internet Explorer will send a Do Not Track request to the sites you visit and to the third parties whose content is hosted on those sites.

To turn the Do Not Track request on or off

-Open Internet Explorer for the desktop, tap or click Tools, then tap or click Internet options.
-On the Advanced tab, under Settings, under Security, do one of the following:

To turn off Do Not Track, uncheck the Always send Do Not Track header check box.

To turn on Do Not Track, check the Always send Do Not Track header check box.

2) Avoid registration on web sites un-necessarily.

3) Use dedicated web browsers when visiting known (retargeting) web sites.

Lastly, because we understand the importance of privacy, our Thirtyseven4 software was built with a tool to assist in this area.  The Thirtyseven4 feature “Track Cleaner” within our Tools section is a privacy tool that securely cleans program activity traces and Internet tracks that are stored in the system registry and other hidden files.

In day to day Internet use, business, and birthday party-planning, it’s hard to believe that we may be leaving a bread-crumb (or cookie!) trail of where we’ve been.  But the truth is, there are crumbs, and there are some very savvy mice following us around, and dangling the Cheese right back in front of us.  Big Brother seems to have eyes in more and more places, but we can defend our privacy and still enjoy some good-old fashioned surprises by taking the right pre-cautionary steps.

Invest your time in purchasing a strong antivirus product for your machines (desktop and mobile).  The benefits are far reaching, and often protect you in areas that you will never be aware of.

Keep an eye open for signs of Retargeting.  If you notice ads online about items you’ve recently viewed, take care of your cookies, and decide on a Do Not Track initiative.

Being proactive about the tips we’ve included will benefit you and your family.  Safety is often grounded in precaution, and so is a well-orchestrated Surprise Party.  (Which was a success by the way!)