Amazon and Best Buy Are Following Me, and It's Creeping Me Out

Yesterday I needed to find a price for a box of inkjet printer cartridges I have but no longer need (the printer broke and I bought a new one that uses different cartridges). I was trying to sell them. This morning I visited my favorite political blog site, Reason Magazine's Hit & Run, and guess what showed up on the right-hand side of the page? Ads for Canon printers and HP inkjet cartridges. How did Hit & Run know?

Of course, they didn't. But Amazon and Best Buy purchase ad space on lots of web pages, and my IP address is stored in various cookies, so totally unrelated sites know who I am and their ads target me. And what's worse, one of those searches was on my iPhone, but the ad showed up on my office desktop.

So remember: If you're searching for something sensitive, use an anonymized browser page to protect your privacy. For example, in Firefox select "New private window," choose "New incognito window" in Chrome, or in Safari opt for "Private Browsing." These choices are usually available under the File menu or at the three horizontal lines icon at the top left. Otherwise, you may find ads for pregnancy tests or online tests for symptoms of schizophrenia showing up in your USA Today.

Bruce Schneier, my favorite IT security and privacy guru, has a great column in January's Motherboard about how our mobile devices are now talking to our laptops and desktops and vice versa. It's long but worth a read: "The Internet of Things That Talk About You Behind Your Back."


Geoff Nathan is Wayne State University’s first information privacy officer. In this newly created role, he will lead efforts to safeguard private, digitally accessible information, ensure compliance with privacy laws and regulations, and develop campus-wide privacy awareness initiatives. Nathan is also a professor in Wayne State’s Linguistics Program and has been faculty liaison to the Computing and Information Technology division for over a decade. Nathan writes the ProfTech blog.

© 2016 Geoff Nathan. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.