Monday, September 20, 2010

Online Behavioral Tracking Becomes More Sophisticated, Annoying -- Soon Illegal?

A few months ago, I searched for and bought a futon on For weeks afterward I kept seeing ads for futons pop up on almost every web site I visited. This, I realized, was the result of tracking "cookies" -- small programs -- that I "allowed" to place on my computer. Too bad the technology (or programming) wasn't advanced enough to know that I already purchased my futon, had it delivered, and assembled it.

These days, however, tools that track users' whereabouts on the Web are more intrusive, more sophisticated and are "facing increased regulatory and public scrutiny and prompting a flurry of legal challenges," according to a Wall Street Journal article (see here).

"Since July, at least six suits have been filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against websites and companies that create advertising technology, accusing them of installing online-tracking tools that are so surreptitious that they essentially hack into users' machines without their knowledge. All of the suits seek class-action status and accuse companies of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other laws against deceptive practices."

One particular new technology involves Flash cookies -- cookies programmed using Adobe's Flash. Researchers have found that some Flash cookies were being used to re-create regular browser cookies that users had deleted. "Adobe and the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group, condemn the practice of using Flash cookies to re-spawn deleted cookies," said the WSJ.

All this prompts me to ask if tracking cookies are being used by pharmaceutical marketers? Please take a few minutes to respond to my Use of Online Behavioral Tracking by Pharma Marketers Survey, which asks the following questions:
  • Have you ever used behavioral targeting in an online advertising campaign?
  • Should the pharmaceutical industry adopt similar self-regulatory principles that were established by media and marketing trade associations to protect consumer privacy when employing behavioral targeting.
  • Should pharma marketers use behavioral targeting at all?
  • If they do use it, when is it appropriate?
After you complete the survey, you will be able to see an up-to-date summary of results. AND be able to download the Pharma Marketing News article "Use of Behavioral Targeting by Pharma Marketers."

"Congress and regulators also are looking more closely at online tracking," notes the WSJ article. "Two bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives that would restrict the practice. The Federal Trade Commission is expected to issue new privacy guidelines by the end of the year and is considering a do-not-track registry, similar to the do-not-call list for telemarketing, that would allow consumers to opt out of behavioral targeting."


  1. Hmm, that's pretty nasty - especially those flash cookies. It seems technology at the moment is too complicated for regular internet users like me to avoid such traps (several GB for operating system, you just cannot control that). I was suprised by all those pharma ads I get in relation to my job - I thought google was that smart:). It's high time to clean computer.

    By the way I've just briefly read another posts - funny pictures and titles, it's realy nice to take a brake and smile. Usually I'm dealing with "heavy" pharma issues like clinical trials, so it's good to take it from different perspective.

  2. Which is one of the reasons I use plugins that blocks all Adobe Flash content on websites that I haven't approved of.

  3. All targeting should be above the line and transparent. I really hope that as an industry pharma companies will self regulate on this. This type of tracking is not something that quality organisations should want or need to take part in. Thanks for flagging this up - I am about to go and find the plugins that Audun Utengen mentions.


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