Tracking Not Required: Behavioral Targeting

Original at 33 Bits of Entropy.

Co-authored by Arvind Narayanan and Subodh Iyengar.

In the first installment of the Tracking Not Required series, we discussed a relatively straightforward case: frequency capping. Now let’s get to the 800-pound gorilla, behaviorally targeted advertising, putatively the main driver of online tracking. We will show how to swap a little functionality for a lot of privacy.

Admittedly, implementing behavioral targeting on the client is hard and will require some technical wizardry. It doesn’t come for “free” in that it requires a trade-off in terms of various privacy and deployability desiderata. Fortunately, this has been a fertile topic of research over the past several years, and there are papers describing solutions at a variety of points on the privacy-deployability spectrum. This post will survey these papers, and propose a simplification of the Adnostic approach — along with prototype code — that offers significant privacy and is straightforward to implement.

Goals. Carrying out behavioral advertising without tracking requires several things. First, the user needs to be profiled and categorized based on their browsing history. In nearly all proposed solutions, this happens in the user’s browser. Second, we need an algorithm for selecting targeted ads to display each time the user visits a page. If the profile is stored locally and not shared with the advertising company, this is quite nontrivial. The final component is for reporting of ad impressions and clicks. This component must also deal with click fraud, impression fraud and other threats.

Existing approaches

The chart presents an overview of existing and proposed architectures.

“Cookies” refers to the status quo of server-side tracking; all other architectures are presented in research papers summarized in the Do Not Track bibliography page. CoP stands for “Client-only Profiles,” the architecture proposed by Bilenko and Richardson.

Several points of note. First, everything except PrivAd — which uses an anonymizing proxy — reveals the IP address, and typically the User Agent and Referer to the ad company as part of normal HTTP requests. Second, everything except CoP (and the status quo of tracking cookies) requires software installation. Opinions vary on just how much of a barrier this is. Third, we don’t take a stance on whether PrivAd is more deployable than ObliviAd or vice-versa; they both face significant hurdles. Finally, Adnostic can be used in one of two modes, hence it is listed twice.

There is an interesting technological approach, not listed above, that works by exposing more limited referer information. Without the referer header (or an equivalent), the ad server may identify the user but will not learn the first-party URL, and thus will not be able to track. This will be explored in more depth in a future article.

New approach. In the solution we propose here, the server is recruited for profiling, but doesn’t store the profile. This avoids the need for software installation and allows easy deployability. In addition, non-tracking is externally verifiable, to the extent that IP address + User-Agent is not nearly as effective for tracking as cookie-based unique identifiers.[1] Like CoP, and unlike Adnostic, each ad company can only profile users during visits to pages that it has a third-party presence on, rather than all pages.

Profiling algorithm.

1. The user visits a page that has embedded content from the ad company.

2. JavaScript in the ad company’s content sends the top-level URL to a special classifier service run by the ad company. (The classifier is run on a separate domain. It does not have any cookies or other information specific to the user.)

3. The classifier returns a topic classification of the page.

4. The ad company’s JavaScript receives the page classification and uses it to update the user’s behavioral profile in HTML5 storage. The JavaScript may also consider other factors, such as how long the user stayed on the page.

There is a fair degree of flexibility in steps 3 and 4 — essentially any profiling algorithm can be implemented by appropriately splitting it into a server-side component that classifies individual web pages and a client-side component that analyzes the user’s interaction with these pages.

Ad serving and accounting.

The ad serving process in our proposal is the same as in Adnostic — the server sends a list of ads along with metadata describing each ad, and the client-side component picks the ad that best matches the locally stored profile. To avoid revealing which ad was displayed, the client can either download all (say, 10) ads in the list while displaying only one, or the client downloads only one ad, but ads are served from a different domain which does not share cookies with the tracking domain. Note the similarity to our frequency capping approach, both in terms of the algorithm and its privacy properties.

Accounting, i.e., billing the right advertiser is also identical to Adnostic for the cost-per-click and cost-per-impression models; we refer the reader there. Discussing the cost-per-action model is deferred to a future post.

Implementation. We implemented our behavioral targeting algorithm using HTML 5 local storage. As with our frequency capping implementation, we found performance was exceptionally fast in modern desktop and mobile browsers. For simplicity, our implementation uses a static local database mapping websites to interest segments and a binary threshold for determining interests. In practice, we expect implementers would maintain the mapping server-side and apply more sophisticated logic client-side.

We also present a different work-in-progress implementation that’s broader in scope, encompassing retargeting, behavioral targeting and frequency capping.

Conclusion. Certainly there are costs to our approach — a “thick-client” model will always be slightly more inconvenient to deploy and maintain than a server-based model, and will probably have a lower targeting accuracy. However, we view these costs as minimal compared to the benefits. Some compromise is necessary to get past the current stalemate in web tracking.

Technological feasibility is necessary, but not sufficient, to change the status quo in online tracking. The other key component is incentives. That is why Do Not Track, standards and advocacy are crucial to the online privacy equation.

[1] The engineering and business reasons for this difference in effectiveness will be discussed in a future post.