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How Mitt Romney Followed Me Around the Internet

How Mitt Romney Followed Me Around the Internet

 

Written by Lois Beckett

Last month, I was searching for a peppy Glee song on the music site Grooveshark, and up popped two ads for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. One invited me to “Learn More.” The other suggested that I “Donate.”

Had Romney’s campaign decided that swing voters might frequent an Internet music site with copyright issues? Are Glee fans now a key demographic?

But it turns out the campaign wasn’t advertising to Grooveshark listeners or a capella fans.

They were targeting me.

As a reporter covering how campaigns use voter data, I spend a fair amount of time on Romney’s official website. That apparently triggered an online targeting company to send me Romney ads wherever they could find me on the web.

“If you visit our site, you are likely to see our ads,” a Romney campaign official told me, when I forwarded a screenshot of the ads.

This is the same kind of online targeting used by sites that sell airline tickets or shoes. If you visit Zappos, advertisements for the sneakers you looked at will sometimes follow you around the web. Romney’s campaign was sending me a “donate” button instead.

But the fact that I was being targeted based on my visits to the campaign site wasn’t at all clear from the ads themselves.

Each of the ads had a teensy blue triangle in the top right corner.

Because I report on online advertising, I know that the triangle means I’ve been targeted. Many online ad companies have agreed to give consumers a heads-up that they’re seeing a message that’s been personalized to them. They mark targeted ads with a blue triangle icon or the words “Ad Choices.”

When I clicked on the blue triangle on one of the Romney ads, a message popped up saying that a company called ShareThis had “determined that you might be interested in an ad like this.” The ad had been “selected for you based on your browsing activity.”

To find out exactly what information about my “browsing habits” was being used — and how it had been collected — I had to go behind the scenes, into the complicated world of online data tracking and targeting.

I was only vaguely aware of ShareThis, and hadn’t realized it had anything to do with advertising. The company is probably most widely known for the little sharing buttons on many sites that make it easy to post stories onto Twitter and Facebook.

You can find ShareThis widgets across the web, from the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, New York magazine, and The Huffington Post, to the Food Network, and Us Weekly.

Barry Grant, an executive in charge of privacy at ShareThis, told me that the company actually gives its widgets away for free, and also includes statistics that tell publishers what’s being shared, and where.

What it gets in exchange is information about what individual surfers are reading and sharing across the Internet — a valuable trove of data that it uses to target online ads.

The company works with nearly 1.4 million different websites, all of which have agreed to let ShareThis collect information about their visitors.

The company uses a small text file called a cookie to track the behavior of any visitor who has used a ShareThis widget. The cookie allows ShareThis to continue to collect information about what someone is viewing as he or she moves from site to site. (ShareThis allows users who don’t want to be tracked to opt-out.)

When an advertiser comes and tells ShareThis that they want to show an ad to people who are interested in Republican primary elections, ShareThis can identify a group of people who have recently read articles or watched videos about the primaries, and show them ads.

This means that ShareThis has the ability to help the Romney campaign identify groups of voters interested in particular issues — and because Romney’s campaign website uses ShareThis buttons, the company is also collecting information about visitors to the campaign’s own site.

Even before a campaign official confirmed that they did target ads at users who visited the campaign site, ShareThis’s Grant said that he was “100 percent certain” that my visiting the site “was a major factor.”

While a Romney campaign official confirmed that the campaign targets ads at users who visited the campaign site, the official — who declined to be named — wouldn’t go into detail how the targeting was done.

Grant said ShareThis could have also worked with the Romney campaign to target users interested in a variety of topics, from broad categories, like people who visit pages about “Republicans,” to more narrow ones, like people interested in “No more taxes.”

He pointed out that some advertisers also choose to target people who are interested in their competitors. “Let’s say Nissan wanted to go after people sharing content on Hondas. We could find people who looked at, shared, clicked on topics” related to Hondas, Grant said.

So Romney’s campaign could also use ShareThis to target people who were reading or sharing content about Obama, or about Obama and certain subjects, like healthcare or the economy.

“It would be smart for him to do,” Grant said, especially if the Romney campaign was trying to reach undecided voters.

ShareThis is careful to stay away from some tracking. It doesn’t gather the information users type into web forms, even though that’s a capability other tracking companies have.

The company also chooses not to match its data on users’ browsing habits with their real-names or offline sources like voter records. They also won’t connect your real name to your online interests, even if you log in to ShareThis via Twitter or Facebook.

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Microsoft and Yahoo use registration data (like names and Zip codes) to match Internet users to their official voting records, so political campaigns can target ads to particular people based on their party registration or donation history.

Grant called that “a slippery slope,” and said that ShareThis preferred to keep its data on individual people completely anonymous.

“Even if it is matching data that is one step lower than anonymous, to me, it’s not a safe place to be operating,” he said.

It’s worth noting that Tim Schigel, ShareThis’ founder and chairman, is a top technology adviser to the Republican National Committee, where he consults on a wide range of issues. (“Tim’s role on the RNC doesn’t have any bearing on ShareThis. ShareThis is a large platform that runs ad campaigns for candidates across the political spectrum,” a company spokeswoman said.)

All this information was helpful — but it still didn’t answer one lingering question. Was the song that I had searched for on Grooveshark, Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” part of the targeting process?

This isn’t a farfetched question, since the Romney campaign told the New York Times in April that Internet users’ musical taste actually played a role in the campaign’s microtargeting research. Among other factors, people who like jazz were unlikely to respond to Romney ads, the campaign discovered.

But ShareThis spokeswoman Jennifer Hyman said that the company did not target its ads “based on the music the user is listening to.”

So it’s still unclear whose political ads you’ll see if you’re too school for cool.

Have you seen a targeted political ad?

If you spot that blue triangle on an online political ad — for Romney, Obama, or any local candidate — let us know. The words “Ad Choices” at the corner of an ad are another sign that the ad has been targeted.

We’ll be able to learn the most about how you were targeted if you take a screenshot of the advertisement, and another screenshot of the accompanying disclosure message, and send them to us via email at targeting2012@propublica.org. Please include the full URL of the page where you saw the ad.

Not sure how to take a screenshot? Here are the instructions if you’re using a PC, using a Mac, or using a smartphone.

You can also check out our “Message Machine” project, which is analyzing how campaigns are targeting voters with different versions of campaign e-mail messages.

This post was originally published by ProPublica.

 

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AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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71 comments

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8:40AM PDT on Jul 5, 2012

Bill, I decided to write this after the part on security as it is probably not interesting for most of the members, but I feel this is also important.
I must say dumb people seem to be equally distributed around the globe. If we put national stereotypes aside and try to look for anything that may be causing people in USA more "relaxed", more trusting of their government - I say it's tradition. Not sure if this is a stereotype too, but to my knowledge a large percent of USA citizens are law-abiding and patriotic. Of course, that makes them a bit easier to mislead and exploit for someone with both power and malicious - or rather egoistic - intent. But in my opinion, those are still good traits. I believe our people would benefit from having some more of those on the average. One can simply try to always thoroughly analyse what individual politics do and say, as opposed to distrusting the whole government.

As you mentioned, we're still dealing with the legacy of USSR on many levels, including cultural, social and political. And yes, parents and especially grandparents told me a lot of what USSR used to be. I'd prefer not to write a long rant about our politics here as it may lead to a flame war or some other way make more evil than good.
You've got one thing a little mixed up - the Orange Revolution was in two last months of 2004. What you mention must be the August Coup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Soviet_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat_attempt) which lead to the end of USSR.

8:36AM PDT on Jul 5, 2012

I must write down a reminder somewhere on what is the character limit for comments on Care2.
---

Including, but not limited to: name and surname, date of birth, habits, interests, PC hardware configuration, installed software.

It would be wise to remember things change and evolve over time, so one of the biggest threats to your privacy can be you growing complacent.

8:34AM PDT on Jul 5, 2012

OK, first on topic.

As for security, I'm only an amateur. All that I know is self-taught or shared by friends, I've got no degree in computer science related to security.
I can tell what security and privacy add-ons my FireFox has: AdBlock Plus*, Beef Taco*, BetterPrivacy*, Cookie Monster*, Domain Details, Element Hiding Helper for AdBlock Plus, Form History Control (for local form history, but still), NoScript*, WorldIP. Those marked with an asterisk I consider a must. Note that you can add subscriptions (lists of rules) in AdBlock Plus and also disable it for those websites you want to support.

As I said earlier, the IP is still visible for anyone, so for true paranoiacs out there I'd recommend TOR + dedicated browser with strict security settings. A portable FireFox with aforementioned must-have add-ons will do. Anyone who wants to go for this option will no doubt wish to learn what all settings mean themselves, so no point to provide a detailed list here.

Also I'd recommend completely separating your "public" and "secure" browsing. The most direct approach is to have two browsers for that. It has a drawback of being less convenient than various add-ons like "TOR Button", but the advantage must be obvious. Always remember: all security measures you undertake can be for nothing if you leave information while in "secure" browsing that allows connecting, say, your profile on some site to your "public" browsing, and vice versa. Including, but not limited to: name and

12:00AM PDT on Jul 5, 2012

Thanks for the "little triangle" information. It will be interesting to see if I find any.

8:36PM PDT on Jul 4, 2012

Carina, you are extremely intelligent about computers. I wish you could teach some of us dumb Americans that the tracking is done by not only all political parties, but also many if not most websites.

You may be too young to teach about the trials of communism, but I am sure you learned from your parents being a Ukrainian. I love Yalta, Sevastopol, and Simferopol. I enjoyed Kiev also, but it is too big, and my first time there (1989) it had armed guards on every street corner, in every transportation terminal, and they would hold our Passports at the hotel until we left then we had three days to leave the country or present it to another hotel desk to hold for us. It all changed in the early 90's after the Orange Revelution.

7:33PM PDT on Jul 4, 2012

Heh. Ads? Tracking? Never heard of it. OK, I'm lying, I did. But that's why I call my security/privacy standards a result of "healthy paranoia".

I see people here know about AdBlock and various cookie cleaners. You may also wish to search for "LSO cookies", "JavaScript", "embedded objects" and "XSS" in relation to tracking.

Someone here also worried about certain web services knowing their location. Location is obtained using IP address. The only way to prevent that is to use a proxy. Which means redirecting all the data you send and receive via browser through that proxy. Which, in turn, means the proxy's owner can, in theory, intercept ("sniff") all that data and do whatever (s)he wants to with it. Up to replacing some of it without you being able to figure that out, though it is not an easy thing to do.

Good luck, stay safe, keep a backup tinfoil hat within reach at all times. :)

3:14PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

What else are they tracking? What kind of dossiers will they have on us if he becomes president?

1:17PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Good point J.C., from a historical standpoint the myth of the "good old days" is just that a myth. That is particularly true if the individual was not a white male of some economic means. To the members of a racial minority, women, a homosexuals, or any other similar group the "good old days" were anything but good.

1:11PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Interesting to see that the sample ad reads "Let's Fight for the America We Love", which appears to imply that those who display it dislike (at the very least) the America we're currently living in. Personally, having lived in the US since the end of WW II, I think that our current America, while not perfect, is a damn sight better than the one I spent the first third of my life in--the one run pretty much exclusively by and for the benefit of white heterosexual (or deeply closeted) men, preferably those with executive-level jobs or extensive property holdings (or both). Republicans can fight as hard--and as dirty--as they want, but they'll have a harder time than any of them can imagine putting the genie back in the bottle, i.e., gays in the closet, blacks in the fields, and women in the kitchen.

12:43PM PDT on Jul 2, 2012

Randi so is Obama following everyone around on the Internet and this guy is our so called president.

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