Report: Consumer Protection

Online Behavorial Tracking and Targeting, Legislative Primer

Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Privacy is a fundamental right in the United States.  For four decades, the foundation of U.S. privacy policies has been based on Fair Information Practices: collection limitation, data quality, purpose specification, use limitation, security safeguards, openness, individual participation, and accountability.

Those principles ensure that individuals are able to control their personal information, help to protect human dignity, hold accountable organizations that collect personal data, promote good business practices, and limit the risk of identity theft. Developments in the digital age urgently require the application of Fair Information Practices to new business practices. Today, electronic information from consumers is collected, compiled, and sold; all done without reasonable safeguards.

Consumers are increasingly relying on the Internet and other digital services for a wide range of transactions and services, many of which involve their most sensitive affairs, including health, financial, and other personal matters. At the same time many companies are now engaging in behavioral advertising, which involves the surreptitious tracking and targeting of consumers. Click by click, consumers’ online activities – the searches they make, the Web pages they visit, the content they view, the videos they watch and their other interactions on social networking sites, the content of emails they send and receive, how they spend money online, their physical locations using mobile Web devices, and other data – are logged into an expanding profile and analyzed in order to target them with more “relevant” advertising.

This is different from the “targeting” used in contextual advertising, in which ads are generated by a search that someone is conducting or a page the person is viewing at that moment. Behavioral tracking and targeting can combine a history of online activity across the Web with data derived offline to create even more detailed profiles. The data that is collected through behavioral tracking can, in some cases, reveal the identity of the person, but even when it does not, the tracking of individuals and the trade of personal or behavioral data raise many concerns.

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