Money & Business

Beyond Cookies: Industry Groups Work on New Ad-Tracking Technology

By / Nov 4, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

With third-party cookies losing momentum among browser providers and on mobile devices, two major ad-industry groups are working on an alternative for tracking users’ online activity. But privacy advocates are concerned that users could end up with less control over what’s tracked.

Cookies—the small files stored on your computer whenever you visit a webpage—are feeling the crunch.

With the long-used online tracking mechanism looking vulnerable to changes by popular browser providers and the rise of mobile devices, the advertising industry is looking for new ways to target users. That’s setting up a clash with privacy advocates. More details:

The issue: Recently, browser publisher Mozilla announced it would begin blocking third-party cookies in its Firefox browser, a move criticized by the ad industry, which relies on those tracking mechanisms to target consumers. “Beyond jeopardizing the amount and quality of content available to users, the plan also threatens to immediately diminish the user experience, by breaking services and tools upon which online businesses and users depend,” the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) wrote in June. But as AdWeek notes, it was not an unprecedented move, as mobile browsers often do not support cookies.

Next steps: In recent weeks, two major advertising groups, the DAA and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), have started to look for new ways to track and analyze user data and to create standards allowing users to opt out of tracking. “The industry thrives on the ability to define and identify audiences and target those audiences with specific advertising,” IAB Vice President Steve Sullivan told the San Jose Mercury News. “We need to be able to do that.” Meanwhile, major browser providers, such as Google and Microsoft, are looking for alternatives of their own.

Privacy groups concerned: Privacy advocates, who have long raised concerns about cookies, say that new tracking techniques will be harder to monitor. One method that worries them is “digital fingerprinting,” which creates nearly spot-on user profiles based on publicly available information about your computer (the size of your screen, the browser plug-ins you have installed, and so on.). Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, privacy researcher Jonathan Mayer said that the newer tracking methods could take more control away from the user. “It’s a lot harder to find out if they’ve been tagged, to do something about it in a reliable way, and, depending on what the technique is, to counteract it in a way that doesn’t undermine functionality,” Mayer said. Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have raised similar concerns.

The DAA says that the new system, which is still in the works, would launch next year, around the time Mozilla’s Firefox ends its support for third-party cookies.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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