Of Cookies & Cruises

Anyone who’s ever conducted a Google search has encountered that moment when one, two or seven days later up pops a related product ad in your desktop, laptop or mobile browser’s window. These cookie-enabled ads seem to surface on some of the most random sites.

The issue of how online marketers use tracking cookies and one’s personal data to deliver “relevant” product pitches is nothing new. The Wall Street Journal‘s Julia Angwin and her team won the prestigious Loeb Award for her reporting that exposed the sometimes nefarious collusion between digital marketers and the booming data-analytics industry.

It all starts with cookies, those little pieces of code implanted in one’s browser’s cache after you conduct a search or visit a website. But the tracking technology goes well beyond cookies. A Syracuse University study describes “evercookies” and “fingerprinting browsers” as means to track online behavior, and there are countless other methods for extracting one’s personal data and browsing behavior. Then of course there’s Facebook.

I personally have come to accept the uncanny appearance of ads in my web browser, sponsored stories on my Facebook wall and promoted tweets in my Twitterstream. That was until I received a call this week from Norwegian Cruise Lines. About four years ago, my wife and I spontaneously decided to take our #3 son on a Caribbean cruise. He had a limited break from school, and NCL happened to have an itinerary that worked.

NCL Pearl

Having led the launch PR for four different cruise ships — Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas and The Windstar and Windsong — I knew a thing or two about what to expect.

This particular NCL cruise fell way short. Maybe it was the hairiest man contest held poolside one day, or the fact that a gold-chained teen wearing a wife-beater shirt tried to pick a fight with my son on the basketball court. 

Whatever the reasons, we wrote off NCL for any future cruising. This didn’t stop the cruise line from emailing and calling us every few months. Thankfully, the sales overtures stopped two years ago.  That was until this week.

I had been doing some online research for an RCCL cruise for my Dad for his anniversary. Within a few days of my search, I received two calls from NCL’s sales department.

Huh? Could NCL be that much under my skin?  It’s one thing to see a contextual ad pop in my browser, but something entirely different to get an offline phone call prompted by my online activity! Does this cruise line track the online behavior of everyone who has ever embarked on one of their cruises? More significantly, I began to wonder how exposed I really am to online marketers, let alone nefarious swindlers?

A visit to the Network Advertising Initiative website revealed that some 82 of its member companies have enabled online behavioral ads for my web browser. Here are a few:

  • 24/7 Media
  • 33Across
  • Accuen Inc.
  • Adapt.TV Inc.
  • Adara Media
  • AdBlade
  • AdBrite
  • Aconian Media Group
  • AddThis (Including XGraph)
  • AdMeld Inc.
  • AdRoll
  • Aggregate Knoweldge Inc.
  • Akamai Technologies, Inc.
  • AOL Advertising
  • AppNexus Inc.
  • Audience Science Inc.

And these are just the NAI members listed under the A’s!

Fortunately, there are ways to identify and minimize the commercial intrusions in your online life. They include:

  • Network Advertising Initiative – Offers an opt-out tool in conjunction with its members for the express purpose of allowing consumers to “opt out” of the behavioral advertising delivered by those members. 
  • Lifehacker has a round-up of tools and sites to help you identify and stop those tracking you. 
  • AllThingsD’s Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher offer tips and links on eliminating “tracking cookies.” (via Reddit) 
  • Firefox (and other browsers) offer add-ons to show who’s tracking you. 
  • There is also “a nascent movement by privacy advocates to educate Internet users about the spread of their personal data online and to offer tools that allow them to control who sees what. (Via The New York Times)         

There are so many growing dimensions to the digital marketing and online privacy story. It’s downright scary, especially when you consider the implications of these sophisticated data analytics tools falling into the hands of less-than-ethical users.