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Study: User tools to limit ad tracking are clunky

Juan Carlos Perez | Nov. 1, 2011
People who want to limit the behavioral advertising and tracking they are subjected to on the Web aren't well served by some popular privacy tools, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study.

People who want to limit the behavioral advertising and tracking they are subjected to on the Web aren't well served by some popular privacy tools, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study.

Researchers concluded that the tools evaluated in the study, which included IE and Firefox components, were generally too complicated and confusing, leading people to misuse them.

"We found serious usability flaws in all nine tools we examined," reads the 38-page report, released on Monday.

The nine tools fall into three main categories: tools that block access to advertising websites; tools that create cookies that indicate users want to opt out of behavioral advertising; and privacy tools built into web browsers.

The researchers enlisted 45 people to try out the tools. The participants weren't technical experts, nor were they knowledgeable about privacy tools, but did have an interest in this type of tools.

Each tool was tried out by five participants. Researchers observed how participants installed and configured the tools, and recorded the users' perceptions and opinions.

"None of the nine tools we tested empowered study participants to effectively control tracking and behavioral advertising according to their personal preferences," the researchers wrote.

Tools for creating opt-out cookies give users a laundry list of ad networks with little or no additional information for users to decide which ones to block.

As a result, users generally opted to block all ad network trackers instead of making informed decisions on a per-company basis, the researchers found.

Another problem: the default settings for most tools were "inappropriate" because they come out-of-the-box with most protections turned off, putting the onus on users to activate and configure them.

A related issue is that the tools do a poor job of explaining to users how they work and how they should be configured, presenting information in terms that were either too simplistic or too technical.

And once configured, the tools didn't clearly communicate to users what they were doing, particularly when they blocked specific content and functionality in websites users were visiting.

The design of the user interfaces also contributed to the users' confusion and inability to properly use the tools, according to the study.

"Our results suggest that the current approach for advertising industry self-regulation through opt-out mechanisms is fundamentally flawed," the researchers wrote.

The tools evaluated by the study are DAA Consumer Choice from the Digital Advertising Alliance; Global Opt-Out and Ghostery 2.5.3, both from Evidon; Privacy Choice's PrivacyMark; TACO 4.0 from Abine; Adblock Plus 1.3.9; Mozilla Firefox 5's privacy panel; and Microsoft IE9's privacy controls and Tracking Protection mechanism.

Rob Shavell, co-founder of Abine, agrees with the researchers' general conclusion.

"People need easier-to-use tools," said Shavell, adding that Abine is working hard to make TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-out) simpler.

 

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