What Do Behavioral Targeters Know About You?

While relevant advertising is the only kind that’s useful, it’s creepy to see behavioral ads following you around the web, advertising that trip to Hawaii you’d researched last week when you’re just trying to read the news. But perhaps it would be a lot less creepy if you knew when and where you were sharing your data, and when and why you’re being targeted by ads.

To that end, you can find out exactly what cookies BlueKai — which says it’s the largest U.S. behavioral data provider, and just raised a third round of $21 million while kicking off its third year of existence — has on you. Head over to BlueKai’s registry and you can see, item by item, recent categories you’ve been slotted into based on your browsing history.

Here’s what Bluekai says it knows about me:

* A bunch about my travel preferences from recent trips I’ve researched (including the proverbial one to Hawaii), including what day I wanted to depart on, how far in advance of the trip it was, and my departure and arrival points. Also something more vague — that I’m “looking for sunshine.” (It’s like they’re peering into my soul!)

* Some information about my job that’s not terrifically accurate — I’m in information technology (true) and hospitality (false), I’m at a company with 100+ employees (false).

* My gender, age range and geographic area.

Though the categorical information is perhaps a bit jargony — aka “In-market > Travel > Air travel > By destination > Domestic destinations” — I can go through and remove any one aspect that I think is incorrect or invasive.

The idea here, said BlueKai CEO Omar Tawakol in a telephone interview, is to show consumers what’s known about them so they don’t get freaked out and opt out of behavioral ads entirely. It’s also meant to fend off the threat of consumer privacy legislation that could potentially cut off the whole industry. A pure opt-out system, along the lines of the Do Not Call Registry, could be a huge blow to the emerging behavioral marketing industry, which was worth $1 billion last year.

“The ultimate solution is to raise the bar high enough that we do it for ourselves instead of waiting for legislation,” Tawakol said. “The industry deserves what it gets if the bar’s too low.”

BlueKai’s is just one early attempt to get on consumer’s good sides — though I can’t imagine that many people will actually go in and adjust their data for just a single cookie-tracking company. The IAB and a group called the Network Advertising Initiative are trying to create broader industry standards.

Because BlueKai doesn’t actually target ads itself, just buy and sell data about users, it depends on its customers doing a better job of exposing what they’re doing. Here’s Tawakol’s proposal:
“In my mind morality always precedes legality. Here’s where I will be happy. If every page that collects data has a simple link in English that tells you what data it has and what it knows about you. And if every ad says this ad was targeted anonymously, click here and we’ll show you what we used.”

Image via Flickr user Editor B.

Related research from GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):

Smartphone Privacy Concerns Sure to Heat Up Even When They’re Unwarranted

Who Owns Your Data in the Cloud

Call It Real-Time, Squared or NewNet the Web Is Changing