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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Who Profiles Your Browsing Habits?

As you shop, browse and scour the web, have you ever wondered who is profiling your browsing habits?

Once, when searching for a yoga mat and book on Amazon, I became alarmed when I started to see ads appearing on blogs featuring "yoga mats" and "yoga books".  Tick one for Amazon, they profile your shopping habits and then try to tailor suggestions based on your previous choices.  Some of us find this useful but others will be thinking "what else are they finding out about me?"

Most of us know that Facebook profiles its users.  Recently, it has come to light that Facebook is profiling you even when you are logged out of the Facebook homepage.  It seems people need to start enabling "Private Browsing" in Firefox, deleting cookies and blocking certain third party applications in Twitter, Facebook and every other social network or shopping site.

But there may actually be a rather ingenious way to ferret these profilers out.

You could try browsing for things you would never normally search for.

As an experiment, this morning I visited the KKK website, looked up Hitler and S.S. Halloween costumes, checked out white power memorabilia and Nazi uniform collectibles.

Why, you may ask? Have I gone all white supremacist / racist / nuts?

No, I was just researching an article for "Inappropriate and Bad Halloween Costumes" for one of my other blogs, "Halloween Holidays".

However, now that I have surfed for these outrageous topics, it will be glaringly obvious if someone has used this information to "profile" my browsing habits.

If I start seeing ads for "Grand Dragon Costumes" or "SS Uniforms" it will be clear that this information has been recorded and used for advertising purposes.

The emergence of Google's new +1 network has raised some important questions relating to privacy.  If you have a profile in a social network (Google +1), and then use a search engine (Google) to browse, it is possible that this information will be used in some way to market to you in the future.  Worse still, your profile can be linked to certain interests, which may make some a little nervous for those who have done research on offensive and inappropriate topics.


  1. Eeeek, I never thought of it like that.

    However, way back in 1996 when I first got online, I was trying to find a cute photo of some feet for my sister-in-law the podiatrist. I got *quite* a shock at the foot fetish sites that sprung up!

  2. @Kath - Scary stuff. My sister had the same problem in the 90s when she surfed for "chicken coops" for a school project. You wouldn't think you could get anything creepy out of that but it just highlights the rather strange people out there...

  3. This actually has something to do with your browser itself. It submits the cookies it has saved to ad networks to determine which ads are suitable for you.

  4. @Regina - It's actually not coming from your browser, it's from changes in the tracking cookie from Facebook. Rather than disappearing, it modifies when you log out of Facebook to track and survey your browsing habits. If you check out the technology section of the Sydney Morning Herald website, there is a more in-depth story about this practice.


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