Study: Privacy tools to limit ad tracking are clunky

Carnegie Mellon University researchers found 'serious usability flaws' in several popular privacy tools that lead people to misuse them

People who want to limit the behavioral advertising and tracking they are subjected to on the Web aren't well served by some popular privacy tools, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study.

Researchers concluded that the tools evaluated in the study, which included IE and Firefox components, were generally too complicated and confusing, leading people to misuse them.

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"We found serious usability flaws in all nine tools we examined," reads the 38-page report, released on Monday.

The nine tools fall into three main categories: tools that block access to advertising websites; tools that create cookies that indicate users want to opt out of behavioral advertising; and privacy tools built into web browsers.

The researchers enlisted 45 people to try out the tools. The participants weren't technical experts, nor were they knowledgeable about privacy tools, but did have an interest in this type of tools.

Each tool was tried out by five participants. Researchers observed how participants installed and configured the tools, and recorded the users' perceptions and opinions.

"None of the nine tools we tested empowered study participants to effectively control tracking and behavioral advertising according to their personal preferences," the researchers wrote.

Tools for creating opt-out cookies give users a laundry list of ad networks with little or no additional information for users to decide which ones to block.

As a result, users generally opted to block all ad network trackers instead of making informed decisions on a per-company basis, the researchers found.

Another problem: the default settings for most tools were "inappropriate" because they come out-of-the-box with most protections turned off, putting the onus on users to activate and configure them.

A related issue is that the tools do a poor job of explaining to users how they work and how they should be configured, presenting information in terms that were either too simplistic or too technical.

And once configured, the tools didn't clearly communicate to users what they were doing, particularly when they blocked specific content and functionality in websites users were visiting.

The design of the user interfaces also contributed to the users' confusion and inability to properly use the tools, according to the study.

"Our results suggest that the current approach for advertising industry self-regulation through opt-out mechanisms is fundamentally flawed," the researchers wrote.

The tools evaluated by the study are DAA Consumer Choice from the Digital Advertising Alliance; Global Opt-Out and Ghostery 2.5.3, both from Evidon; Privacy Choice's PrivacyMark; TACO 4.0 from Abine; Adblock Plus 1.3.9; Mozilla Firefox 5's privacy panel; and Microsoft IE9's privacy controls and Tracking Protection mechanism.

Rob Shavell, co-founder of Abine, agrees with the researchers' general conclusion.

"People need easier-to-use tools," said Shavell, adding that Abine is working hard to make TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-out) simpler.

"We'll get there. We'll create an awesome product," he said in a phone interview. "We're making it easier every day."

There is an ongoing discussion among privacy software vendors, online advertising providers and government regulators about simplifying tools and processes for consumers so that they can more easily control online behavioral ad tracking, such as through the proposed Do Not Track standard, Shavell said.

Complicating matters is that interest among consumers in tools that offer control over online tracking is fairly new, so users aren't generally familiar with this type of software, he said.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft said the Tracking Protection feature in IE9 lets users add "an industry curated" tracking protection list with one click.

"Tracking Protection Lists offers consumers an opt-in mechanism to identify and block many forms of undesired tracking," she said via email.

These lists, compiled by third-party organizations with expertise in this field, let users control which third-party site content can track them when they're online, and they can be designed to either "block" or "allow" certain third party content, she said.

"IE9 also includes the broadly discussed Do Not Track User Preference -- via both a DOM property and an HTTP header, as described in the W3C submission -- as a secondary method," she added.

Scott Meyer, founder and CEO of Evidon, said his company's products aim to create "transparency," not just opt-out mechanisms.

"Transparency enables consumers to make more informed decisions, and the fact is that the vast majority choose not to opt-out when presented with more information," he said in an emailed statement. "Our research ... shows that 67 percent of consumers feel more positive about brands which give them this level of transparency and control."

Jim Brock, Privacy Choice's CEO and founder, said independent tests such as the one from Carnegie Mellon are very valuable, even if they are subjective, and Privacy Choice will take the findings into account.

However, Privacy Choice's principal blocking service for consumers is TrackerBlock, which the Carnegie Mellon researchers didn't include in the study, and not PrivacyMark, he said via email.

In addition, internal surveys at Privacy Choice reveal that more than 75 percent of PrivacyMark users understand what the service does and would recommend it to a friend, he said.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, Mozilla and Adblock Plus didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Juan Carlos Perez covers search, social media, online advertising, e-commerce, Web application development, enterprise cloud collaboration suites and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @@JuanCPerezIDG.

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