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    Digital Advertisers Continue to Battle Private-Browsing Technology

    We have discussed the privacy issues connected with targeted behavioral advertising before. This type of advertising is where a user’s online activity is tracked so that ads can be served based on the user’s behavior. What began as online data gathering has expanded — now there’s the online and offline data collection and tracking of the habits of consumers. For example, Google announced earlier this year that it “has begun using billions of credit-card transaction records” to try to connect individuals’ “digital trails to real-world purchase records in a far more extensive way than was possible before,” the Washington Post reported.

    Some people are uncomfortable with the tracking and the targeting by companies and attempt to opt-out. (Opt-out puts the burden on consumers to learn about what the privacy policies are, whether they protect consumer data, whom the data is shared with and for what purpose, and how to opt-out of this data collection, use and sharing. Consumer advocates support opt-in policies, where companies have an incentive to create strong privacy protections and use limitations so consumers will choose to share their data.) In response, people have installed ad-blocker technology to avoid seeing ads. However, there is online-tracking technology that can be difficult to block, such as “canvas fingerprinting.”

    People also have joined the Do Not Track movement — this can take the form of opting out of being tracked by e-mail address or by having your Web browser send an opt-out signal to a company as you conduct your online activity. And federal lawmakers have tried to pass Do Not Track legislation to protect kids.

    There has been a battle. For example, Apple’s Safari browser and Mozilla’s Firefox browser have included anti-tracking technology for years. However, some companies choose not to respect Do Not Track signals sent by Web browsers. 

    Last week, Apple reiterated that its upcoming update to its Safari Web browser (for mobile in iOS and desktops in macOS) would include an “intelligent tracking prevention” feature that would allow a company to follow a person for only 24 hours after that person visited a site. The privacy feature had been announced in June at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference — WWDC.

    At that time, Apple engineer John Wilander explained on a company blog: “This means users only have long-term persistent cookies and website data from the sites they actually interact with and tracking data is removed proactively as they browse the web.”

    Now that the Safari update with the intelligent tracking prevention is set to arrive (this week for iOS 11, next week for macOS High Sierra), there has been considerable pushback from digital advertisers. Six major trade associations published an open letter detailing their concerns with the tracking prevention, saying, “it overrides and replaces existing user-controlled cookie preferences with Apple’s own set of opaque and arbitrary standards for cookie handling.”

    In a statement, Apple responded: “Ad tracking technology has become so pervasive that it is possible for ad tracking companies to recreate the majority of a person’s web browsing history. [... ] The new Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature [...] does not block ads or interfere with legitimate tracking on the sites that people actually click on and visit. Cookies for sites that you interact with function as designed, and ads placed by web publishers will appear normally.”

    Targeted behavioral advertising will continue as long as it makes money for companies. Some people appreciate the ads that they receive from being tracked across the sites that they visit. But others do not. For people who choose to opt-out, it should be easy. It is not, so I applaud companies for creating private-browsing technology to help protect the privacy of people who do not want their movements continually tracked across all the websites that they visit.

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