Many Consumers Are Unclear What "Online Tracking" Even Means

A study released this week (just in time for the FTC’s online advertising workshop) shows that a huge percentage of Americans don’t grasp just how intensively their online habits are tracked, analyzed, and used to serve ads back to them. Almost 55% of respondents “falsely assumed that a company’s privacy polices prohibited it from sharing their addresses and purchases with affiliated companies,” and almost 40% “falsely believed that a company’s privacy policy prohibits it from using information to analyze an individuals’ activities online.”

It became even clearer that they didn’t grasp the scope of current online tracking practices when the issue was presented to them in a more straightforward fashion:

When survey respondents were offered a clear explanation of an online advertising model, about 85 percent rejected the idea that a site they value and trust should be allowed to serve up click stream advertisements based on data from their visits to various other sites.

One of the authors of the report said, “Consumers don’t understand that privacy policies are just notices. They don’t guarantee any rights.” Companies find ways to get around privacy issues by honoring the words but not the spirit of their pledges—for instance, by promising no 3rd-party tracking, but then using 1st-party subdomains to track for their advertisers.

“Most Consumers Clueless About Online Tracking” [PCWorld]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. bnpederson says:

    Wait, wait, wait. The general public doesn’t understand technology or corporate policies?


  2. MaliBoo Radley says:


    Well, American Idol was on and they got distracted. Plus, the pizza guy was at the front door. You know how it is …

  3. darkclawsofchaos says:

    well, thats why I don’t get pornagraphic pop ups anymore, not like in the 1990s, tat explains a lot, I knew that sites track and hoard browsing data while bombarding you with ads, but to be so specific to a browser, thats wow

  4. Benny Gesserit says:

    Am I supposed to be pulling out (what’s left of) my hair? Ripping my clothing and keening at the news?

    Ever looked a magazine, sunshine. I open “Toronto Life” and GASP it’s full of ads about Toronto and, because TO Life readers tend to be affluent, high-end services. A magazine who doesn’t understand their market and tailor their ads to that market is called “out of business.”

    So some poor schmuck of an internet surfer gets served ads about cookbooks because he/she visits cooking sites several times a day. Are you implying he/she, like some corporate zombie, is going to click each and every one of these ads and buy the product?

    Time would be better spent making consumers aware of tools (ie Greasemonkey) that let consumers customize their internet experience. (Like the left and right column of info on this site. I got rid of them ages ago – hope you haven’t put anything important in there.)

  5. iamme99 says:

    Ha! Probably 70% of general people shouldn’t be allowed to run a computer w/o supervision. There are literally millions of comprised computers that have been taken over and made part of zombie networks that are used to deliver spam and viruses and the owners have absolutely no idea that this is occurring (or how to prevent it). The average computer user is a danger to the world.

  6. VaMPKiSS1 says:

    @iamme99: I would submit that the average computer user is also a danger to the fragile filament that’s left of my patience.

    But seriously, thinking about it now, the average computer really might be a danger to the world. Certainly to the security of economies that are becoming increasingly digital, what with the growing botnets. But news about that is always presented in that “oh well, people are dumb there’s nothing we can do about it” defeatist light. I wonder if there’s really some kind of mass intervention us computer savvy people could get together and conduct? I mean technically it’s a matter of national security, right?

    … or maybe I just want to be around to look smug when the geeks save the day, heh.

  7. bnpederson says:

    No, the average computer user with Internet access is a danger to other computer users with Internet access. And we have to accept that because without the average Internet denizen a large portion of our favorite parts of the Internet wouldn’t exist. I’d say we should vilify those people who create zombie networks to send out spam and viruses instead, neh? They’re probably contributing to the quality of the Internet a lot less.

  8. BigNutty says:

    Always assume anything you do on the Internet can be compromised or collected for advertising purposes. It is a part of life now. For this reason, I check my bank account and my credit card accounts everyday.

    I really don’t care about receiving targeted advertising. It beats getting every junk item in the world. I believe the figures quoted.

    The average consumer is oblivious to the marketing methods used to target them, and have no understanding what the Privacy Policies even mean.

  9. @Jim (The Canuck One):
    Well, a post like this is really about those people who wouldn’t know Greasemonkey from a lab monkey, and whose eyes glaze over whenever you say “preferences” or “settings.”

    They’re those people who double-click links in web pages because that’s how folders are opened on the Windows desktop.

    I’d rather leave the Greasemonkey and AdBlock tips to Lifehacker and keep trying to shine a light on how advertising/marketing works. Call me paranoid, but I truly think that for every 1 time you’re aware of being marketed to, there are 9 other instances that are sneaking past you.

    @iamme99 and VaMPKiSS1:
    Maybe simpler operating systems would help, too? The vast majority of people only need web access, a word processor, and some media player apps. They need something like the new Asus Eee, but in a much larger form factor so they’d feel like it was something valuable.

  10. mac-phisto says:

    personally, i really don’t care too much. is that a crime? as long as the data being passed is not tagged with personal information, i’m good. now i know that sometimes it does contain personal information – that should be stopped. particularly hand-offs of cc info & the like.

    but i’ll be brutally honest here: i enjoy sites that are tailored to me. a big part of amazon’s success is their data collection. sometimes i wish when i was shopping across 90 different sites for a specific product, i wouldn’t have to restart my search from the beginning every time i get to a new site.

    how cool would it be to be searching for a flight from atl to lax on certain days & simply having to visit an airline’s site to find their flights already pre-loaded?

    it would certainly appeal to me.

  11. Benny Gesserit says:

    @Chris Walters: You know, you’re right. And, as a software developer, I’ve just noted: These are people I should be marketing at!!

    I’m off to “Google Analytics” – wish me luck!

  12. Buran says:

    I regularly delete tracking cookies and have my browser set to not allow domains to set cookies again once I wipe them. I also have 3rd-party domains barred from setting cookies. So I can still place orders and the like, but the tracking doesn’t work.

  13. DrGirlfriend says:

    The average computer user is such a moron. Snort.

  14. DrGirlfriend says:

    Wait, I’m the average computer user. Zoinks! Hoisted by my own petard!

  15. VaMPKiSS1 says:

    @Chris Walters: Wait, what does it say about me that I love my complicated settings AND I think I want an Asus Eee?

  16. etinterrapax says:

    I’d mind it more, but it’s too abstract for me. What I do care about is the endless promos for services like Netflix, to which I already subscribe. Comcast is a big offender also. AOL was; thank God that’s over. I know Amazon aggregates data to tailor its advertising, and I’ve been a loyal customer with them for years. And frankly, I’ve always assumed that cable companies push for digital so that they can track what you watch. Of course, in doing so, they get free market research–nay, profitable, since they make their subscribers pay for the means to track them. Now, that annoys me. I was surprised Nielsen was even still in business. I thought they’d been outmoded.

  17. Rusted says:

    A computer is a tool, nothing more. Somewhat disturbed that some people still think it should be for only those who have sprung from Zeus’s brow fully cognizant in all the ways and wiles of a PC. It’s like saying those of us that drive cars should be able to rebuild engines from the short block.


  18. @VaMPKiSS1: I want one too, so I’m as confused as you are. Slightly off-topic, but: I went by J&R Electronics in Manhattan on Saturday to look at the floor model of the Asus Eee and it was gone–they’d sold all 40 or so of the laptops they’d received plus the display model in only a couple of days! Dang.

  19. ChChChacos says:

    This website shows me ads of things I’ve recently searched on Amazon or related items to what i’ve searched on Amazon in ads all across consumerist. kind of the same thing in a way.

  20. douchrti says:

    If they are going to use my information, they should reimburse me in some way. Why should it be free?

  21. aikoto says:

    Adblockplus will block most ad services including flash. This will cut down on a good amount of that not to mention making pages cleaner and load faster. I recommend it to everyone.


  22. pestie says:

    Adblock Plus is a godsend, but lately I’ve taken to using NoScript as well. It blocks Javascript, which is what’s used for most ads and most browser security holes. So now I’m running Adblock Plus, Flashblock and NoScript, and have them configured to play nicely with each other. Yes, I often have to use NoScript’s “temporarily allow…” function, but it’s still worth it. It’s amazing how much faster pages load when they’re not waiting on slow ad servers to serve up their Javascript crap (even with Adblock Plus, the JS code still gets loaded).

  23. Condéleeza says:

    The “Do Not Track List” is such a joke too. Of course, that sounds great, but most people do not understand how the tracking works. In order to track all the people on a “Do Not Track List,” you’d end up having to track those people that much more. Think about it. If I can’t track you, that means that I need to know your name/info and the cookie on your computer. Then actively scrub your data from my tracking activities. Then what happens if you delete your computer cookie and I can no longer identify you? You become anonymous again and I start tracking again. All because people don’t want targeted ads…it doesn’t make sense to me.