The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia on May 16, 2012. Lisa Clyburn knew she had found the perfect gift for her nine-year-old son: a feline-themed logic game that would appeal to his passion for cards and cats. But when the Edmonton child psychologist pulled out her phone to show her son a funny cat video on Facebook, she fears she may have inadvertently tipped him off to the Christmas Day surprise after an ad for the present she had just ordered online popped up in her feed, catching the boy’s eye. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke

The Facebook logo is displayed on an iPad in Philadelphia on May 16, 2012. Lisa Clyburn knew she had found the perfect gift for her nine-year-old son: a feline-themed logic game that would appeal to his passion for cards and cats. But when the Edmonton child psychologist pulled out her phone to show her son a funny cat video on Facebook, she fears she may have inadvertently tipped him off to the Christmas Day surprise after an ad for the present she had just ordered online popped up in her feed, catching the boy’s eye. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke

Online ads spoil Christmas surprises, raising privacy concerns: experts

Lisa Clyburn knew she had found the perfect gift for her nine-year-old son: a feline-themed logic game that would appeal to his passion for cards and cats.

But when the Edmonton child psychologist pulled out her phone to show her son a funny cat video on Facebook, she fears she may have inadvertently tipped him off to the Christmas Day surprise after an ad for the present she had just ordered online popped up in her feed, catching the boy’s eye.

“It wouldn’t have been on his radar had he not seen it,” Clyburn said with a sigh. “I wanted it to blow his mind that mom found this cool game that I knew that he would like.”

Clyburn is one of a number of social media users who say they’ve been burned by online advertisements spoiling romantic getaways, season tickets and even an engagement ring, with some internet shoppers taking precautions such as searching for decoy gifts in order to throw their loved ones off the scent this holiday season.

But experts say it’s not only surprises that are at risk of being exposed as tech companies and retailers develop increasingly sophisticated tools to target users with online advertisements.

University of Toronto marketing professor David Soberman said the practice of collecting information about consumers in order to target them with ads is about as old as the industry itself. But the online age has provided companies with a trove of personal information that allows them to target consumers with a degree of precision that can at times feel unsettling.

Soberman said companies build consumer profiles by tracking their online movements linked to an IP address, a unique identifier for each computer using the internet, and through cookies, which are tiny text files that allow websites to log a user’s visits and activity. Advertisers can also use data that people volunteer when creating a profile for a website or app — such as name, age and location — so when a user signs into their account on a new phone or computer, their surfing habits can be tracked across devices, he said.

One of the ways businesses can try to reach potential buyers is through a process called retargeting, said Soberman, in which users are served with ads for products they have already looked up online. For example, he said, if an online shopper visits a website for a hardware store for the crafter on their Christmas list, then ads from that retailer will follow the user around the internet to entice them to click purchase.

Ideally, these personalized advertisements should create value for both the seller and the buyer, said Soberman.

The small share of ads that pique users’ privacy concerns are only a symptom of a much broader problem, which is that people don’t understand that they signed up for being tracked when they checked off the box agreeing to a website’s terms and conditions, he said.

“I think that what ends up happening is that it’s only when we feel something’s done that we feel isn’t quite right, that you’ll have a situation where you’re not happy,” said Soberman. “A lot of people are agreeing to things, then they get upset afterwards.”

Vance Lockton, a strategic analyst at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said the privacy watchdog takes two primary considerations into account in monitoring the online ad market — the sensitivity of the information, and the reasonable expectations of the individual.

Most online advertising is based on an “opt-out” model of consent, said Lockton, which means companies can assume that they are permitted to track users’ behaviour for marketing purposes, but have to give them an option to withdraw from being targeted.

On platforms like Google and Facebook, all it takes is a few clicks for a user to view and change their ad settings, and the Digital Advertising Alliance Of Canada offers a tool that allows users to opt out of targeted ads from a number of networks.

But Lockton said federal law sets a higher bar of “opt-in” consent for online advertisements based on sensitive subjects that a user would expect to remain private, such as health and financial information, requiring that users explicitly agree to being served with ads about these topics based on their search history.

In a 2015 study, the privacy commissioner’s office examined 9,000 ads and found that three per cent were targeted based on previous searches. Of those roughly 300 targeted ads, investigators found that 34 were based on sensitive searches such as “pregnancy test,” “women’s shelter” or “depression cures.”

Even if the scale of the problem seems relatively minor, Lockton said the impacts of this information being revealed can be far reaching.

He said the regulations also don’t account for the swaths of information that depending on the context, could be considered sensitive.

“There’s no bright-line test to say what is sensitive and what’s not,” he said. “An engagement ring … (is) certainly something that I would say it isn’t obvious to me one way or the other whether it’s sensitive. A case certainly could be made that it would be.”

For Eric Morris, director of Google Canada’s retail business, these distinctions are crystal clear. If an online shopper is looking for an engagement ring, they may want to be exposed to offers from different jewellers to find the best cut and price for the occasion, he said, and it’s up to the user to keep their browsing secret from their hopefully soon-to-be-betrothed.

“We do differentiate between engagement rings and what we call sensitive information, whether it’s related to health or someone’s financial information,” he said, adding that one can find a list online of sensitive categories where the company has made that distinction.

For sensitive categories including health care and financial services, Morris said Google has strict policies in place to prevent information about a user’s personal hardships, identity and beliefs and sexual interests from being revealed through targeted advertising. He said Google has developed artificial intelligence technology that can filter out ads with sensitive information, and human staffers also review ads to ensure that users’ privacy is being protected.

A Google Canada spokesperson abruptly ended the phone interview when Morris was asked whether ads that may bypass the tech giant’s sensitivity screening would constitute a violation of users’ privacy. Morris was also prevented from answering questions about what kinds of information Google collects about users for the purposes of targeted advertising.

Ramona Pringle, director of Ryerson University’s Innovation Studio, said tech companies are often opaque about their targeted advertising practices, but if an online service seems “free,” it’s safe to assume it’s your information the business is selling.

“Any time you see a new feature being invented or being introduced, we should ask ourselves: How are they able to collect new information on me using this tool?” said Pringle.

As intrusive as they may seem, targeted advertisements provide a window into the scale of information that companies are collecting about users, a fact many people otherwise seem to forget when scrolling through cyberspace.

“We live in the information age, and part of that means… that information is in our face even when we’re not looking for it, or we’re trying to keep it from people,” Pringle said.

“There’s been interesting cases where businesses know more about people than those people might have even revealed to their family members and their closest friends.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Paul Harris, owner of Tribe restaurant downtown, said a lot of the blame for the latest restrictions that will close outdoor patios on Sunday can be blamed on those not obeying health regulations and the government for failing to enforce the rules.
Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Restaurant owners frustrated by patio shutdowns

Outdoor patios must stop serving by midnight Sunday to stem rising COVID infections

The City of Red Deer said Wednesday that some outdoor activity rentals will be available starting Monday for households only. (Advocate File Photo)
City of Red Deer outlines activities available as new provincial COVID-19 restrictions set in

There will be limited recreation activities available across the City of Red… Continue reading

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta reports 2,271 new COVID-19 cases, Red Deer cases rise slightly

Across Alberta, there are 666 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 146 in the ICU

‘Love, Oran’ is a documentary feature made by Red Deer-raised filmmaker Colin Scheyen. It’s about hidden letters, found in a Woodlea home after 70 years, revealing a family secret. (Screenshot by Advocate staff).
Hidden letters reveal secrets of Red Deer family in a new documentary film

‘Love, Oran,’ by filmmaker Colin Scheyen is showing at Edmonton’s NorthwestFest

Red Deer Rebels’ three graduating players, Josh Tarzwell (left), Chris Douglas (middle) and Ethan Anders (right) will all move on to new opportunities next season. (Photo by ROB WALLATOR/Red Deer Rebels)
‘It was a rollercoaster’: Rebels’ graduating players look back on wild season

The nerves. Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he… Continue reading

In this Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 file photo, the logo of Apple is illuminated at a store in the city center of Munich, Germany. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Matthias Schrader
Dependent on social media’s marketing power, small businesses worry over iOS changes

Dependent on social media’s marketing power, small businesses worry over iOS changes

Enbridge company logos on display at the company's annual meeting in Calgary on May 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Line 3 and Line 5 pipelines in U.S. ‘absolutely critical,’ says Enbridge CEO

Line 3 and Line 5 pipelines in U.S. ‘absolutely critical,’ says Enbridge CEO

A sign board displays the TSX's close in Toronto's financial district on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TSX outpaces U.S. stock markets on lift from commodities while tech under pressure

TSX outpaces U.S. stock markets on lift from commodities while tech under pressure

The Barrick Gold logo is seen during the company's annual general meeting in Toronto on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Barrick Gold expects growing exposure to copper as price escalation boosts Q1 profits

Barrick Gold expects growing exposure to copper as price escalation boosts Q1 profits

Outdoor retailers struggle to stock tents, backpacks ahead of second COVID summer

Outdoor retailers struggle to stock tents, backpacks ahead of second COVID summer

FILE - Broadway posters hang outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre during Covid-19 lockdown in New York on May 13, 2020. Many Broadway productions are scrambling to resume ticket sales to welcome theater-goers this fall after city and state leaders have green-lit a reopening of the Great White Way at full capacity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Broadway theaters can reopen Sept. 14 and will be allowed to decide their own entry requirements. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Broadway readies imminent ticket sales for a fall reopening

Broadway readies imminent ticket sales for a fall reopening

This photo shows a love letter that John F. Kennedy wrote to a Swedish paramour a few years after he married Jacqueline Bouvier, according to Boston-based RR Auction. The auction house says Kennedy wrote letters to aristocrat Gunilla von Post in 1955 and 1956, and announced, Wednesday, May 5, 2021, that they will be going up for auction. (Nikki Brickett/ RR Auction via AP)
‘Anxious to see you:’ JFK letters to Swedish lover auctioned

‘Anxious to see you:’ JFK letters to Swedish lover auctioned

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on during a press conference in the rotunda at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday May 6, 2020. British Columbia is offering tangible recognition of the historical wrongs caused by the province when it interned thousands of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. gives $2M to Japanese Canadian seniors as step toward righting internment wrongs

B.C. gives $2M to Japanese Canadian seniors as step toward righting internment wrongs

Most Read