Three invasive tracking stories


In the last post, I talked about how tracking is really good for you, both as a business and as a consumer. I also acknowledged that I understand why many people really hate tracking, which has led to a tracking war, with one side trying to make it impossible for the other side to get any value from tracking. I think that’s going too far, but I understand it. People are angry and pushing back.

In this post, I’m going to share three stories I’ve read over the past few years. Each illustrates how invasive tracking can get. By learning from these stories and not doing these sorts of things, you’re more likely to fly under the radar with tracking that’s beneficial to everyone.

The Target Pregnancy Test

Thanks to purchases by credit and debit cards, nearly every major retailer of any type, knows where you live and what you’re buying, year after year. They purchase data from other retailers to learn pretty much everything about you, from your income level to what websites you visit and what you talk about on them.

They have predictive analytics departments, where they combine this data and analyze it against purchasing trends from millions of customers. This lets them send out individualized coupons to each address based on their unique shopping patterns. And, simple changes in shopping habits can tell them more about you than you may know yourself, allowing them to predict what you’re going to buy in the future.

If they started advertising baby products to her now, they would get her hooked on buying all her diapers, wipes, and other products at Target for years.

Last year a father noticed that flyers from Target were being sent to his young teenage daughter, encouraging her to buy baby clothes and cribs, so he called the confused store manager to complain about the message they were sending young girls about teenage pregnancy.

Here’s what happened:

Target’s analytics department had noticed she was suddenly more concerned about using healthier products. It automatically compared her shopping patters to previous customers who had similar shifts in purchases and started buying baby clothes nine months later, and flagged her as probably pregnant. If they started advertising baby products to her now, they would get her hooked on buying all her diapers, wipes, and other products at Target for years.

And, that’s how her father found out his daughter was pregnant.

Stalking a Sick Elderly Mother

There’s a very effective marketing strategy called retargeting. The idea is that when someone visits your site, you tag them with a cookie through an advertising network, and then you can show them ads on other sites for your site, to remind them to come back and purchase something.

And people do return. Many marketers have claimed is now responsible for a third and up to half of their sales. And it’s effective because it’s so targeted. Instead of showing ads to people randomly, or just based on interests and demographics, you’re only showing emails to a handful of people who have come to your site before, and didn’t buy.

This gives the whole industry a bad name.

But, retargeting can be taken too far, done poorly, and without any thought to how it might effect people on the receiving end. This gives the whole industry a bad name.

Last year, an elderly mother did some searches about a disease she just found out she had and was traumatized by retargeting that she stopped using the Internet and just cried the rest of the day. Almost every website she visited from that point forward was advertising snake oil remedies constantly reminding her that she was sick. The Internet was stalking her.

Sears Knows Who You Are

Imagine that you are doing some price shopping, and you visit a site like Sears. You have never visited this site before and you have never given them your email. You browse the site and forget about it.

A week later, you get an email from that site, asking if you’re still interested in that item. Maybe they even offer a discount. We’re not talking about showing you a retargeted ad here. They sent you an email just because you visited their site. Or, maybe, they phoned you while you were browsing their site to ask if you needed any help.

How creepy is that? How the heck did they know who you were and get your email or phone number? Are they spying on you somehow?

They recorded your details against that tag and now they know who you are, wherever you go.

They sure are. Here’s how it works:

You went to some site on the Internet with advertising and purchased something. That advertising network tagged your computer, using some combination of super cookies, which can’t be deleted, and cross-device browser fingerprinting. They recorded your details against that tag and now they know who you are, wherever you go, as long as its on any of the other large partner sites that are also on that advertising network.

Then, you visit a site in their network, they know exactly what you’re looking at, and they send an email on behalf of the company or share your email with them so the company can email you directly. And in the U.S., this is perfectly legal.

Final Thoughts

It’s these kinds of practices that get people really get upset about tracking services and advertising networks. It’s these kinds of stories that inspire so many smart people to work so hard to block these services out of existence. It’s these kinds of fears that get millions of people installing those plugins so they feel some measure of control over their privacy.

I believe tracking is important and beneficial, but needs to be done within certain moral grounds. At, we make it easy to learn which marketing works and doesn’t work in ways that increase conversions, and we don’t do any of the above kind of tracking and sharing of data that people are rightfully against.