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Data Cookies Flag and Track Our Political Preferences

We all know we’re marked and flagged and tracked on the web. Visit a site about, for example, hiking, and very soon you’ll see ads about, say, hiking boots pop up on other sites. Propublica’s Lois Beckett has a piece about how this same kind of thing is happening related to our politics.

Go check out How Companies Have Assembled Political Profiles for Millions of Internet Users for the complete story, and for the multiple links provided. Here are some excerpts:

If you’re a registered voter and surf the web, one of the sites you visit has almost certainly placed a tiny piece of data on your computer flagging your political preferences. That piece of data, called a cookie, marks you as a Democrat or Republican, when you last voted, and what contributions you’ve made. It also can include factors like your estimated income, what you do for a living, and what you’ve bought at the local mall.

Okay, my first thought here is this: that the cookies mark us as, surprise, either a Democrat or a Republican. If that’s the case, then all my visits to multiple “third” party sites and organizations involved in political / campaign / electoral reform are either ignored, or most likely I’m guessing, interpreted as “progressive,” regardless of the variety of sites I visit, and so by default, “Democratic.” If all they have are Red and Blue cookies, then Green, or even a Rainbow reality, has to be subsumed to one of the Two.

Back to the article:

Across the country, companies are using cookies to tailor the political ads you see online. One of the firms is CampaignGrid, which boasted in a recent slideshow, ‘Internet Users are No Longer Anonymous.’ …

… CampaignGrid lists what it can now know about an Internet user: ‘Lives in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District, 19002 zip code, Registered primary voting Republican, High net worth household, Age 50-54, Teenagers in the home, Technology professional, Interested in politics, Shopping for a car, Planning a vacation in Puerto Rico.’ …

That last part is from a slideshow CampaignGrid had online until, Propublica says, last week, when it disappeared following Propublica’s request for a comment.

Seven companies advertising that they can do this kind of political cookie tracking thing were identified by Propublica.

Few of the companies involved in the targeting talk about it publicly. But CampaignGrid, which works with Republicans, and a similar, Democratic firm, Precision Network, told ProPublica they have political information on 150 million American Internet users, or roughly 80 percent of the nation’s registered voters.

The information – stripped of your name or address – is connected to your computer via a cookie. Targeting firms say replacing your name with an ID number keeps the process anonymous and protects users’ privacy.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, of course, as “privacy experts” mentioned in the article explain.

Interesting, too, is who is involved in providing such information.

Google has stayed away from this kind of targeting. It classifies political beliefs as ‘sensitive personal information,’ in the same category as medical information and religious beliefs.

But other big players have embraced the ‘political cookie,’ as one company branded it.
As we reported in June, Yahoo and Microsoft sell access to your registration information for political targeting. That’s one way CampaignGrid and other companies find you online. Political targeting firms say they also work with other websites, but would not name them.

Companies often do identify such ads, Propublica says, if you know what to look for.

Many online ad companies mark targeted ads with a small blue triangle symbol, or the phrase ‘Ad Choices,’ and offer surfers a chance to opt out. But even if web users know what the triangle means, they get no information about how or why they were targeted.

There are few legal regulations governing how online targeting works, or what notification consumers must receive.

Arguments are made, not surprisingly, that such targeting is a First Amendment issue that should be “protected as part of political speech.” The article quotes Stuart Ingis, a lawyer for the Digital Advertising Alliance:

‘These technologies provide a method for politicians inexpensively to improve our democracy,’ he said. ‘I would say that the founding fathers firmly believed in the ability … to efficiently reach a desired audience with a political message.’

If those “founding fathers” had known how often they’d be used support a wide range of positions they might have deleted, or at least edited, much of what they wrote. Not everyone, of course, agrees with Mr. Ingis.

A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School found that 86 percent of surveyed adults did not want ‘political advertising tailored to your interests,’ and that 77 percent would not return to a website if they knew it ‘was sharing information about me with political advertisers.’

I wonder if the surveyed feel the same way about Facebooking politics. Clearly many people have no problem making their political preferences known there. It is different, of course, in that one is a choice (at least in what you choose to share on FB; what FB does with what you share is something else), and the other isn’t.

If you’d like to help out with Propublica’s research about political cookies, follow the link, scroll to the bottom, and check out “Have you seen a targeted political ad? Help us find out how politicians are targeting you online.”

(Rainbow Oreo viat Oreos FB Wall Photos)

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3 Responses to Data Cookies Flag and Track Our Political Preferences

  1. Cujo359 October 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    If you want to avoid being tracked while you’re browsing the web, here are some things to do, at least if you’re using Firefox:

    - Set up your browser to clear history when you exit

    - Exit and restart Firefox occasionally

    - Use the NoScript and AdBlock extensions

    - If you’re running Windows, make sure that your anti-virus, anti-adware, and anti-spyware programs are up to date, and enabled

    At least, that’s a good start. I don’t use Windows, but I do the other things. If you’re in a multi-user environment, you might want to consider also having a separate login for web browsing, or running the browser in its own virtual machine, if you do other sensitive things on your computer that aren’t web-related.

    • Joyce Arnold October 23, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

      Thnks for the info, Cujo.

      • Cujo359 October 23, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

        You’re welcome, Joyce. Every time you clear your history (including your cookies and cache), you should be giving yourself a fresh anonymous identity. When I see some Internet ad concern bragging about how many identities it supposedly has, I wonder how many of them are me.

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