She Asks IT, He Answers IT

You're a Mean One, Mr. Tech!

She Asks IT

A few days ago, my naughty husband (you) “unwrapped” a Christmas gift just by sitting on the couch and glancing over at my laptop screen.

There, splashed as a bright, beaming ad, right in the middle of my Facebook timeline, was a picture of the present I had saved in my eBay basket the previous day.

Score one for the invisible Internet “cookies.”

This was not the first time an item I purchased, thought about purchasing, or just clicked on because I wondered why anybody would purchase it, showed up later on another page.  But it was the first time the potential gift recipient saw it. (I think.)

Thankfully, it was just shaving soap that you probably already knew you were getting. But if it had been another, more personal gift, my whole Christmas (and, in turn, your whole Christmas) might have suffered greatly.

So, for my own Santa peace of mind (and for those, like me, who want to actually surprise others with online gift purchases,) what can I do to prevent that from happening again? How can I keep my shopping history secret if I am using a shared computer or easily accessible (or glance-able) tablet or phone?

In other words, how can I keep technology from being the Grinch that steals Christmas?

He Answers IT

It sounds like you have become acutely aware this holiday season of Interest Based Advertising, the cash cow of online marketing companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook, among many others. While it may be fun to see variations of that new Kate Spade purse you have been eyeing (yes, I have seen that, too,) you sure do not want a child or significant other “pre-unwrapping” your special gift. So where do those pesky ads originate, and what can you do to stop them?

Just a little background: Most of this targeted advertising comes from browser cookies that get stored by websites in your browser as you surf the web. So, one of the easiest things you can do is clear out your cookies and history after each browsing session.

But cookies are not all bad. They also store usernames and passwords for you, and may contain data entered into online forms. Maybe you have noticed that after you clear your cookies, you have to log back into all the websites that used to keep you logged in. Cookies usually do not contain personally identifiable information and may be encrypted, but do not assume they cannot be read or even changed.

There are a few things other than clearing your cookies that you can do to minimize interest based advertising.

  1. Visit where you can opt out of the currently 116 online advertisers who abide by the “Digital Advertising Alliance's (DAA) Self-Regulatory Program” all at once. According to the website, major players such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo participate. Interestingly, these opt-outs get stored in……cookies. So if your clear the cookies from your browser, you lose the opt-out settings. Also, this must be done for each browser you use.
  2. Turn on Tracking Protection in your browser. “Do Not Track” attempts to block third party sites from accessing your existing cookies or setting new ones. This is just another level of protection from sites that are not covered under number 1 above.
  3. If you want to block ads entirely, you can try a browser add-on like AdblockPlus from They have add-ons built for the popular browsers. It works very well and the level of blocking can be customized to varying degrees on different browsers.
  4. As opposed to always blocking ads with AdBlockPlus, you can prevent web surfing traces with InPrivate or Incognito browsing. A private browsing session is only good while that window is open, and it will allow you to set temporary cookies so you can at least log into a website while you are shopping.

This is only a short list of ways to hide your browsing habits from prying eyes, whether in your home or the other side of the world. Each site, like Facebook and Google, may also have other settings within your account on that site. The ways to set the privacy settings in each browser are also outside the scope of this short article, and many other computer security questions quickly come to mind. We will discuss those in another post. Until then, Happy Shopping!