Online ads can trail you across devices – creepy, smart business, or both?

drawbridge devicesTargeted ads are always a little uncanny – it’s kind of disconcerting to see ads for those ski boots you were just looking at, since it’s pretty clear advertisers are keeping a watchful eye on your browsing habits. But things are getting even stranger. Now, if your daydreaming and looking up info about a potential trip to Hawaii on your work computer, you can see ads from places like Expedia on your iPad at home. Ads can follow you from one device to another. 

There are a few different ways advertisers are learning to trail you off your desktops and onto mobile devices (and vice versa.) 

“Triangulation:” Creepin’ by any other name, or simple innovation?

One of the methods used by targeted ad specialists like Drawbridge involves sending cookies to various devices in the same area. If the cookies reveal patterns of behavior on multiple devices, it “triangulates” the position of multiple devices with the same owner, and begins a targeted ad campaign. There’s no limit to the amount of devices that can be paired up, so even if you have a ton of different gadgets, you’ll have no reprieve from the targeted ads (unless you keep them very far apart from each other.)

CEO and Founder of Drawbridge Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan feels confident that the measures Drawbridge uses do not invade privacy. “Drawbridge’s technology does not access a single piece of Personally Identifiable Information about the user, be it an email handle, a social handle, full legal name, phone number, physical address, etc. Our technology is based on fully anonymous signals – also known as “features” – that are spatio-temporal and behavioral in nature. For example, features include the applications and sites that a user visits on their mobile and desktop devices, and the times of day and locations where their devices are are accessing the internet,” she says.

So even though they’re figuring out if that Galaxy S3 and MacBook Pro belong to the same person, they’re not cataloging personal stuff like your Twitter handle – just that you’ve gone on Twitter frequently on both devices. This makes it harder to be 100 percent accurate, but may assuage some privacy concerns. Right now, Drawbridge normally has around a 60-70 percent accuracy.

When asked if people who don’t like the idea of being followed by Drawbridge clients can opt out, Sivaramakrishnan explains that there is a simple way to avoid getting these ads: “It is very easy, if the users opts out of being targeted on any one of his or her devices and we have identified the user across their other devices, we will carry over their preference on every other device. Drawbridge has partnered with TRUSTe and offers the ad choices preference manager (an industry first) on all in-application banner inventory. The user can therefore not only opt out on their desktop or laptop device, but also can do the same on their mobile devices.” Sivaramakrishnan pointed out that more information about the TRUSTe partnership is available online – so that’s a good sign that even targeted ad servers are cognizant that their behavior might freak some people out.

Social media ads know you no matter what device you use 

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 2.19.49 PM When advertisers go through Facebook, the company says it doesn’t give them the data necessary to determine how to reach you across multiple devices, but they don’t have to – since you use the same Facebook account no matter what device you’re on, you’ll see ads targeted towards you whether you’re browsing from an iPad or looking at a friend’s pictures through the new Facebook Home. And Facebook now partners with four data brokerage companies, Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, and BlueKai. When a company wants to launch a targeted ad campaign through Facebook, they use data from these brokers to hit your account, no matter what device you use. And even though Facebook made it marginally easier to opt out of some targeted ads, you still have to opt out of each partnered service, and even then your page won’t be ad-free, just rid of ads from specific companies.

And, of course, beyond Facebook, there are other powerful social networks that work with targeted ads – Google being potentially the most major ad player. And even though ads aren’t as garish on Twitter as they are on Facebook, promoted content based on user interest is still a thing – so even though promoted tweets blend in with your normal feed, they’re still there – and they’re still tailored to your interests.

So what should I do if I hate targeted ads?

You can opt out of as much as you can, and complain when services don’t give you an opportunity to opt out. Digital Trends talked to Aleecia M. McDonald, the Director of Privacy at the Center for Internet and Society. She wasn’t too optimistic about the situation. “There are very limited tools for users to control this sort of tracking and linking.”

“The most pervasive is the DAA opt-out, but it does not help much here. DAA opt-outs only change the types of ads people see, but not change data collection or other uses like linking devices together. Unfortunately, right now the best way to limit tracking is to block all advertising. Ad blocking is a very blunt approach when most people are OK with seeing ads, just not OK with giving up personal data that goes with ads. It is a shame to lose ad revenue for all ads, but that is the state of privacy today. Unless and until there is a meaningful solution to limit data collection through self-help tools like Do Not Track or from legislation, the best privacy protection is to use ad blockers.” 

So you might want to adjust your expectations, because this sort of targeted ad delivery is highly unlikely to go away, unless serious legislative changes prevent companies from using services like Facebook’s personalized ads or Drawbridge. If companies see an opportunity to get their ads in front of people who are more likely to buy their products, they will always take them.

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: