By Jaikumar Vijayan, ThirdCertainty
Consumers shopping on websites belonging to high-end retailers this holiday season are likely to be much more heavily tracked and profiled than Internet users on other retail and ecommerce sites.
Abine, a vendor that sells online consumer privacy tools recently compiled a list of retailers that are tracking their customers the most by counting the number of online trackers blocked by its products on different retail sites.
It discovered that high-end retailers have a tendency to allow more third parties to monitor user behavior on their sites than relatively lower-end ones. Abine’s product for instance, blocked far more trackers on websites belonging to L.L. Bean, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren and Neiman Marcus than from sites belonging to Sears, Kmart and Walmart.
More: Protecting your digital footprint in the post privacy era
Abine stopped a total of 19 trackers on L.L. Bean’s site, 15 apiece on J. Crew and Ralph Lauren’s websites and 14 on the Neiman Marcus site. In contrast it found just two trackers each on the Kmart and Sears websites and three trackers each on Walmart, Macys and Best Buy sites. Meanwhile GroupOn and Ikea had zero third-party trackers on their sites. Generally, the biggest trackers tended to be lingerie outlets and drugstores, Abine noted in its report.
“The brands that cater to the more wealthy shoppers are doing more tracking of our purchasing habits than everyday brands,” says Rob Shavell, CEO of Abine.
“You might expect the more prestigious brands to protect the privacy of their shoppers so others do not have access to the same people,” he says. But the opposite in fact appears to be happening.
One reason could be that online advertisers simply view shoppers at the more prestigious brands as affluent and therefore more desirable to target with marketing messages. Online marketers are also likely willing to pay more for data on those shopping at affluent brands so there could be a tendency to collect more of it, Shavell says.
The data shows that many online activities that consumers take for granted these days, like browsing through items in an online store, comparing prices and products, placing items in a shopping cart, or abandoning a purchase, are being tracked extensively. “What we purchase online is more or less public information shared with a lot of companies that in turn share it with a lot of other companies,” Shavell says.
“What we buy becomes part of an online profile whether we are buying it for ourselves or for others.”
Third-party online tracking and behavioral profiling have become major privacy concerns for consumers in recent years. Privacy groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have railed against the tendency by online companies to allow third-party advertisers and marketers to track and profile customers on their sites.
“There is a giant chasm between the type of tracking that companies are engaged in on the web and what people know or think is occurring,” contends EPIC on its website. “The general public has very little idea that every second they are on the Internet, their behavior is being tracked and used to create a “profile” which is then sold to companies on “stock-market-like” exchanges.”
Consumers too have not been shy about expressing their growing disapproval of the trend. Even as Internet companies have insisted that online tracking for ad serving purposes is vital to a free Internet, consumers have increasingly begun pushing back. In a survey by Consumer Reports earlier this year, close to 85 percent of those polled says they opposed online tracking and were unwilling to trade personal data for better-targeted ads.
Even the White House weighed in on the matter in its Big Data report this May, noting that consumers often have little idea about the extent to which they have become commodities in the online advertising world.
“As we look ahead at the rising trajectory of information collection across many sources and the ability to target advertising with greater precision, the challenge to consumer transparency and meaningful choice deepens,” the report notes.