Privacy Choices: Who's Watching You and Tracking Your Clicks?

Every click you make is tracking your online behavior, but PrivacyChoice provides privacy tools to help you control who's watching and tracking you.

Every click you make is tracked by ad companies who tend to collect information on your behavior and then sell it to other advertisers who want you to be their target too. Maintaining online privacy can be difficult and time-consuming, but excellent privacy tools provide hope and control.

Ad targeting technology doesn't have a great deal of oversight or accountability and continues to stay several steps ahead of consumer privacy technology. There are zombie cookies that respawn instead of die. And then security researcher/hacker Samy Kamkar came up with an open source evercookie that would have to qualify as the cookie tracker from hell; it stores itself in eight different places. Even if the user deletes their cookies, it only takes one cookie to escape notice and enables most, if not all, of the cookies to reset.

There is no bullet-proof method to avoid being tracked, but there are some companies who are doing the hard work for you. One of my favorite places to help make sense of all the ad tracking and privacy policies allows each user to set and protect your own ad profile. PrivacyChoice offers people choices and transparency in tracking and privacy policies. It's like a one-stop free shop for consumers to find tools to understand and to manage their privacy preferences for online marketing. An 80% positive feedback is very impressive, but PrivacyChoice intends to keep working to attain an even higher recommendation.

Jim Brock founded PrivacyChoice in March of 2009. "We started with a single button on a page that gathered opt-outs for around 40 ad networks. Now our database includes several hundred networks and over 250,000 people have used our service to set privacy settings. We offer detailed information about each network, and let the user customize their preferences based on the policies and oversight they are comfortable with."

Have you ever wanted to discover who's watching you online? If so, I highly recommend Trackerscan. It comes in two flavors, a Firefox add-on that sees all ad trackers and a bookmark that sees most ad trackers. If you would like to see which advertising companies collect your information, you can scan any specific website. The Wall Street Journal recommended using TrackerScan to monitor the privacy policies of particular websites while you surf.

PrivacyChoice also has a list of "top websites" and who's watching which tells you what they do with your interests and activities, their privacy policy summaries, industry oversight, and opt-out processes. It also states if that ad company on the website is accountable to the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI).

The Network Advertising Initiative was formed by a group of advertising networks in 1999, including Google, Yahoo! and AOL. NAI describes itself as 'a coalition of leading online marketing companies committed to building consumer awareness and reinforcing responsible business and data management practices and standards.' NAI hosts a unified opt-out page that includes its members. PrivacyChoice has only been around a little more than a year and is quickly gaining in popularity on NAI.

Due to the Wall Street Journal's What They Know series, some websites change their privacy policies and even their data collection policies about things like tracking children. There are trends in privacy and trends in the way websites tweak their tracking information to try to stay out of the spotlight. 

I asked PrivacyChoice founder Jim Brock what trends he sees in regards to people's online privacy concerns.

Brock said, "If our site traffic is any indication, interest is rising fast, perhaps as part of the attention being paid to online privacy. People are getting more sophisticated, and understand that they need to be proactive in order to make choices when it comes to privacy. But they also understand that there are trade-offs between privacy and free content and services. More than anything, they want to be able to make informed choices, which for many even means sharing more and not less about themselves with marketers."

There are many browser-based privacy tools, but PrivacyChoice compares the top five privacy tools.  It also helps you check what's in your ad profile on Google or Yahoo. As a privacy watchdog, I can't urge you enough to take control of your privacy and visit PrivacyChoice. It has a universal opt-out covering hundreds of companies. The site scans other sites to identify third-parties with access to site data, and then lists detailed compliance and policy analysis for each company.

Brock reported, "A fundamental problem is that ad targeted technology is still ahead of consumer privacy technology. PrivacyChoice is about helping close that gap. This is challenging in part because the companies that build web browsers make money on advertising, and don't have much incentive to give consumers more control. To me, that's cynical and short-sighted."

Enterprises and publishers can also find terrific and useful information at PrivacyChoice.org, including help for publishers to create privacy widgets for their own sites that automatically provide privacy disclosures to users. PrivacyWidget maintains "an industry-wide database of ad targeting companies, including domains used by hundreds of ad networks and platforms, their privacy policies and opt-out and opt-in processes. For any page on your site, the PrivacyWidget will automatically show the right list of companies and choices, fulfilling ad-industry guidelines and demonstrating your commitment to user privacy."

If you care about your privacy, it doesn't mean you have to opt-out of being tracked. You can decide if and how your online interests are used for advertising. With the help available at PrivacyChoice, you can decide if any ad-companies' privacy practices are up to your standards or you can tweak your preferences for the relevant ads that you do see. The transparency and accountability in the PrivacyChoice privacy tools offer you real choices and control of who's watching and tracking you.

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