Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 1
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study of Consumer Tracking
Behavioral targeting is an online marketing method that collects data on the browsing activities of consumers, in order to
„target‟ more relevant online advertising. It places digital tags in the browsers of web site visitors, using these tags to track
and aggregate consumer behavior. The vast majority of data is collected anonymously, i.e., not linked to a person‟s name.
However, behavioral targeting does create digital dossiers on consumers with the aim of connecting browsing activity to a
tagged individual. This tagging is largely invisible to consumers, who are not asked to explicitly give consent for this
practice. By using data collected clandestinely, behavioral targeting undermines the autonomy of consumers in their online
shopping and purchase decisions. In order to illustrate the nature of consumer tracking, a case study was conducted that
examined behavioral targeting within Levis.com, the e-commerce site for the Levis clothing line. The results show the Levis
web site loads a total of nine tracking tags that link to eight third party companies, none of which are acknowledged in the
trustworthiness of an e-commerce site or the actor it represents. The risks behavioral targeting presents to trust within e-
commerce are discussed, leading to recommendations to reestablish consumer control over behavioral targeting methods.
Trust, Privacy, Behavioral Targeting, Web beacons, E-Commerce, Risk Analysis
Behavioral targeting involves the collection of information about a consumer‟s online activities in order to deliver advertising
targeted to their potential upcoming purchases. It is conducted by companies that are generically identified as advertising
networks. By observing the Web activities of millions of consumers, advertising networks can closely match advertising to
potential customers. Data collected includes what web sites you visit, how long you stay there, what pages you view, and
where you go next. The typical data gathered does not include your name, address, email address, phone number and so forth.
In this sense, the data collected is „anonymous.‟ However, the clear intent of behavioral targeting is to track consumers over
time, to build up digital dossiers of their interests and shopping activities. Even though names are not collected, these
companies do continually try to tag consumers with a unique identifier used to aggregate their web activity. The most well
known method for tagging consumers is with cookies, although methods such as Web beacons and Flash cookies are actively
In a report released in 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers the following scenario describing behavioral
targeting. A consumer from Washington, DC shops online for airline tickets to New York City. She searches for flights, but
doesn‟t make any purchases yet. She subsequently visits the web site of the local newspaper, where she sees a targeted ad
offering flights between Washington, DC and New York City. While the consumer has not been identified by name, her
interest in airline tickets has been noted, both by placing a cookie on her computer, and logging her airline shopping behavior
with the advertising network.
In the years since the FTC released that report, behavioral targeting has increased in scope and sophistication. The iWatch
web crawler, a tool developed to document online tracking methods, has shown about six percent of Web sites in the US
deploy third party cookies, and 36 % deploy Web beacons (Jensen, Sarkar, Jensen and Potts, 2007). While these results show
the use of behavioral targeting is widespread, the nature of behavioral targeting within a specific site has not been examined
in depth. Therefore, this study was conducted to look at behavioral targeting as carried out on the Levis.com web site.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. The next section describes the technology used in behavioral targeting. That is
followed by a review of relationship between trust and privacy. The next section presents the results of a study of behavioral
targeting on the Levis site. This is followed by a discussion of the risks to Levis and e-commerce sites in general. The final
section offers recommendations for addressing these risks by changing the nature of behavioral targeting.
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 2
OVERVIEW OF BEHAVIORAL TARGETING TECHNOLOGY
Behavioral targeting customizes messages to individual consumers based on their specific shopping interests, and
characteristics like gender, age, and ethnicity. Behavioral targeting is a generic name for a series of technologies that collect
and organize click stream data, develop data warehousing structures, apply data mining algorithms to uncover consumer
browsing patterns, and serve targeted ads matched to an individual.
Advertising networks establish relationships with partner Web sites, collect visitor browsing data, and serve ads matched by
algorithm to information known about the online visitor. Some of the largest companies offering these services include
Advertising.com, Inc., Akami Technologies, Blue Lithium, TACODA, 24/7 Real Media, Tribal Fusion, DoubleClick, and
Atlas Solutions (2009g).
Behavioral targeting embeds a tag or identifier within a consumer‟s browser, using that tag to track browsing behavior. This
digital tag does not identify a consumer by name. It functions more like an internal code or index that can connect non-
contiguous browsing sessions.
Behavioral targeting divides browsing information into „personally identifiable information‟ (PII) and not personally
identifiable (non-PII). Categories of PII include name, email address, and social security number. Non-PII is basically
everything else about you, including your age, gender, ethnicity, what sites you visit, and what pages you view. The
collection of non-PII is carried out by many e-commerce sites without explicit consent from cunsumers.
Behavioral targeting tags consumers by exploiting persistent browser state. Three types of persistent state used for behavioral
targeting are browser cookies, Web beacons, and Flash cookies. A browser cookie is a small file placed on the client
computer. To support behavioral targeting, cookies are loaded with a tag or identifier for tracking.
Another common tagging method is called a Web beacon. Also called a web bug, clear gif or pixel tag, it is a one by one
pixel gif file that is loaded by your browser as an image. It is an image in name only, because it is invisible, and its purpose is
to carry in tags and tracking information. Web beacons are stored in your browser cache, a local storage area originally
designed to improve page loading speeds. The http headers for Web beacons contain tag values and other data fields used to
Local data stores for browser plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash, are also exploited by behavioral targeting (Dixon, 2007). Many
e-commerce web sites use the Adobe Flash plug-in for animation and graphics. Adobe Flash uses a local data store that it
refers to as shared data objects, but they are also known as Flash cookies. In fact, Adobe offers an online tutorial on how to
assign tags to animation files in order to track interactions with Flash movies (2009l).
Growing awareness of privacy risks has led to an increase in blocking cookies. This diminishes the effectiveness of cookies
for behavioral targeting, so that other methods have been expanded (Dixon, 2007). A common practice of advertising
networks is to deploy all three methods at the same time – tagging each consumer with browser cookies, Web beacons, and
Flash cookies. This belts and suspenders process of consumer tracking allows advertising networks to “invisibly engage in
cross-domain tracking of [web] visitors,” (Jackson, Bortz, Boneh and Mitchell, 2006).
Combining multiple methods of data collection offers advertisers a richer picture of consumer behavior. As the FTC has
noted, advertisers are eager to expand data collection to new platforms such as the mobile device (2009c). The goal for
targeting, according to Keith Johnson, vice-president of product management at i-Behavior, Inc., is to “connect online, offline
(for example, catalog) and in-store retail purchase behavior” so that tracking is continuous, comprehensive, and complete
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRIVACY AND TRUST
Research has shown that trust is an important component of e-commerce, and that lack of trust leads to lost customers and
business opportunities (Gefen, Karahanna and Straub, 2003). Trust depends on confidence and faith rather than explicit
control in an ongoing relationship (Fukuyama, 1995). The willingness to enter a relationship requires trust in the opposing
partner‟s respect for privacy. Petronio describes privacy management as a dialectical process, where privacy boundaries
expand or contract based on trust in the other party. Trust and privacy have a complex, but mutually dependent relationship.
Trust can influence privacy management, and privacy breaches, which Petronio refers to as privacy boundary turbulence, can
damage trust (Petronio, 2002).
One difficulty for e-commerce sites in managing trust and privacy is lack of agreement on the meaning of privacy. While
notions of privacy have persisted for centuries and are found in cultures around the globe, a consensus on a precise definition
has been elusive. Academic works on privacy focus on either providing a definition for privacy, or explaining why privacy
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 3
should be valued. A focus on definitions provides a descriptive account of privacy, and a focus on value leads to a normative
account of privacy (Waldo, Lin and Millett, 2007).
Within e-commerce the most influential account of privacy has been Westin‟s definition: “Privacy is the claim of individuals,
groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extend information about them is communicated
to others,” (Westin, 1967). Here, privacy equals control over information, and private information “belongs” to an individual,
as a type of property right. Like other property, an individual can keep (conceal) or dispose of privacy (disclose or make
public). The conceptualization of privacy as a property right has been quite influential within e-commerce privacy policies
Figure 1: The Levis Home Page, and log of resource requests associated with loading that page.
Problems with defining privacy as control
Defining privacy as control over information has been extremely problematic. First of all, people have already lost control of
existing digital data, with more piling up every day. Any comprehensive solution to deliver individual control over past,
present and future information would be faced with an intractable problem (Ackerman, 2000). Secondly, it treats all pieces of
information as discreet, independent data elements to be managed one by one. Following this analysis, people set up controls
for their email address, different controls for their credit card number, and other controls for their gender. This interpretation
of privacy is used to split apart a person‟s digital trail into PII and non-PII. Within e-commerce, formal privacy mechanisms
are only concerned with PII. Issues of informed consent, adequate data security, and rules for data sharing are only explicitly
spelled out for PII. Everything else collected about online browsing, including sensitive items such as location (obtained from
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 4
your IP address), what online articles you read, and what keywords you enter into a search engine are excluded from official
considerations of online privacy. Under the control definition of privacy, you only need to control your information if you
can be identified. As long as you are treated anonymously, then you have no privacy concerns.
Anonymity does not equal privacy
The problem with the equating anonymity with privacy becomes apparent by considering the instrumental value of privacy.
For example, privacy is valued because it protects the autonomy of the individual, and preserves independence and free
choice in decision processes. Another instrumental value associated with privacy is that it contributes to fairness. Privacy can
help ensure a level playing field for information flow between two parties in a transaction. Without privacy, it would be
easier for wealthier, more powerful parties to obtain information about the other and gain an advantage (Waldo, Lin et al.,
2007). By considering the value of autonomy and fairness, we see tracking consumers anonymously is an issue because it
undermines their autonomy.
Economic perspectives on privacy have also been influential. One school of economic thought holds that privacy restricts
information flow, interfering with the efficient workings of the market (Waldo, Lin et al., 2007). This leads to considering
privacy as something consumers can trade for some other economic good. However, there are broader consequences from
trading away privacy. For example, an employee browsing the web at work may sign up for a free service in exchange for
tracking her online behavior. This data is of interest not only to online marketers, but her company‟s competitors as well.
Behavioral targeting here functions as a powerful conduit for industrial espionage (Conti, 2009).
A normative approach provided by Nissenbaum holds that information flow is governed by social norms highly dependent on
context (Waldo, Lin et al. 2007). So for example, information flow can differ within a health context, among friends, or in a
public setting. Nissenbaum argues privacy should be conceptualized as a relational and social property (Solove 2007). The
conception of privacy as an individual right makes it difficult to implement it within an online social environment. The
fundamental problem of the information privacy paradigm is that it reinforces an individualistic interpretation of privacy, and
creates a software requirement of control that is a fundamentally intractable problem (Ackerman 2000). It has also been used
to justify pervasive tracking of anonymous but very real consumers.
LEVIS.COM: A CASE STUDY OF BEHAVIORAL TARGETING IN ACTION
The web site for this case study is Levis.com, an e-commerce shopping site for the Levis clothing line. Levi Strauss & Co. is
a privately held company, established in 1853 in San Francisco, California. It main product has been blue jeans, and its brand
is identified with American values of rugged individualism. The long association of jeans with the American West reinforces
Levi‟s identification with personal liberty and freedom of choice. When a customer buys Levis jeans, they make an implicit
endorsement of these values (Sullivan, 2006).
It describes the treatment of PII, specifically the use of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) technology to protect personal
information. Levis pledges that it does not share personal information without the customer‟s consent.
However, the collection of non-personal or anonymous data is considered a separate category, not specifically protected or
subject to affirmative consent. Levis states it will “automatically collect and store certain other information to enable us to
analyze and improve our websites and to provide our customers with a fulfilling online experience. For example, we collect
your IP address, browser information and reference site domain name every time you visit our site. We also collect
information regarding customer traffic patterns and site usage.”
The policy reports a third party advertising company, Avenue A, collects “anonymous information about your visits to our
website. This is primarily accomplished through the use of a technology device, commonly referred to as a Web beacon . . .
Avenue A may use anonymous information about your visits to this and other websites in order to provide ads about goods
and services of interest to you.” The policy also describes an unnamed third party that places Web beacons on the site to
measure use of the site. The policy concludes by addressing the issue of consent: “By using our website, you're agreeing to
other third party service providers that may be collecting data from Levis customers.
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 5
Data Collection Method
For the purpose of clarity, the machine examined for this study will be referred to as the client machine. Data was collected
for this study using the following process. The Levis web site was accessed by the client machine using the Mozilla Firefox
browser version 3.0.6. A log of ongoing http headers and resource requests associated with loading the Levis page was
collected using the Firefox plug-in TamperData version 10.0.1 (2009k). Browser cookies on the client were examined using
the Add N Edit Cookies Plug-in (2009a). Before beginning the data collection, the „clear private data‟ option was used on
Firefox to remove all previous cookies or Web beacons.
Figure 1 shows a screen shot with the Levis home page, and a log of resource requests recorded by TamperData. TamperData
logs the name and type of resource requested, status information, the contents of the http Request Header (originating on the
client and sent to the server) and the contents of the http Response Header (sent by the server along with the resource
networks, including Yield Manager, TribalFusion, and Advertising.com.
To begin data collection, the main page of the Levis site was accessed, and the resource requests generated by the Levis page
originates from Atlas, a behavioral targeting company (2009b). This code creates seven different one by one image files with
tracking information – in other words, seven Web beacons. Several of these beacons connect to competitors of Atlas. For
example there is a TribalFusion Web beacon (number 7, as labeled in figure 2) and one from advertising.com (number 2).
This suggests competing advertising networks are cooperating in their data collection techniques.
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Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 6
Figure 3: The tag value from a cookie is passed back to Omniture using a Web beacon.
Next, cookies from Levis were examined for evidence of tagging. Figure 3 shows a cookie named browser_id. The host for
this cookie is us.levis.com, and it expires on February 15, 2019. The cookie has a tag value, 62217632133. The TamperData
logs revealed a beacon from Omniture, a web analytics company (2009n), referencing this tag value. Figure 3 show the tag
value from the Levis cookie being passed back to Omniture, along with an extensive list of software installed on the client
machine. One potential use of the installed software list is to enable Omniture to retrieve tags from other local data stores, for
example from the Silverlight plug-in (Dixon, 2007).
An example of a Web beacon loaded by the Levis site is displayed in Figure 4. This Web beacon, named
fields (the last line of the response headers, CP= “NOI DSP…”). P3P, an acronym for Platform for Privacy Preferences, is a
mechanism for creating machine readable privacy settings developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (2009h).
Compact P3P policies are strings of three letter tokens describing the data handling intentions of a cookie or other data
collection tool. This P3P policy states that it will be used to collect non-identified data (NOI), will use a pseudonymous
identifier to create a record of browsing activities (PSAa), will keep this information for an indeterminate amount of time
(IND), and will collect other types of data that are not currently specified under the P3P protocol (OTC). For a description of
all available P3P tokens refer to (2009i).
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Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 7
Figure 4: Analysis of data collection uses for this Web beacon.
Table 1 provides a summary of nine Web beacons loaded on the client machine from the Levis web site. All nine beacons
have P3P policies. These nine beacons link Levis customers to eight digital advertising entities. Eight out of nine of the
beacons are used for customer tracking. One beacon, from tracking.searchmarketing.com, collects identified data such as
contact information. This beacon comes from Channel Advisor, a firm that provides technology to maximize sales across e-
commerce platforms (2009e). Even though this beacon collects contact information, there is no mention of this company
personal information without consent.
mentioned is the digital advertising provider Avenue A (2009j), but none of these Web beacons link to Avenue A.
An analysis of the data retention settings shows three of the beacons will retain data for an indeterminate period of time
(IND). Six indicate that data will be retained according to stated business practices (BUS). Although the P3P specifications
retention information could be found for any of these companies.
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Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 8
Table 1: Summary of Web beacons planted by the Levis site.
Linked to what
RISKS TO TRUST IN E-COMMERCE FROM BEHAVIORAL TARGETING
The Levis brand has a long association with American values of independence and autonomy. Levi‟s use of behavioral
targeting directly contradicts the values that serve as a foundation of customer trust in the Levis brand. The perceptions of
integrity and benevolence that e-commerce sites labor to establish can be seriously damaged by behavioral targeting in its
This study shows the amount of data collected and shared with third parties is much higher that what is described in the Levis
the data collected for behavioral targeting, which it describes as anonymous data. The code displayed in Figure 2 shows
multiple Web beacons being attached during a single visit. The cookie displayed in Figure 3 has a tag value that is shared
with a behavioral targeting company. Levis customers are not asked to consent to these practices, and the partners that Levis
shares information with are not identified. The omission of a clear explanation of behavioral targeting practices diminishes
maintaining your privacy,” (2009f). When an e-commerce site loses credibility, it quickly loses the trust and loyalty of its
customers (Gefen, Karahanna et al., 2003).
For customers who associate blue jeans with American independence and freedom, Levi‟s pervasive use of Web beacons and
ongoing data collection with unidentified marketing partners may come as a shock. In a consumer driven market, even the
appearance of deceptive practices carries a great risk, and can result in a public relations nightmare.
There can also be broader social consequences from the impact of these practices. Evidence suggests behavioral targeting
was a factor during the final run up in prices before the collapse of the American housing market in 2007. The role of
behavioral targeting in the aggressive marketing of sub-prime mortgages is documented in “Supplemental Statement in
Support of Complaint and Request for Inquiry and Injunctive Relief Concerning Unfair and Deceptive Online Practices,” a
legal brief submitted to the FTC by the Center for Digital Democracy in November 2007 (2007). Keywords such as
„mortgage‟ and „refinance‟ were going for as high as $20 to $30 dollars per click. Consumers shopping for sub-prime
mortgages were filtered out and aggregated by search engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN. These prospects were then
sold to interested parties offering financial services (2007).
Behavioral targeting has been described by Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as “the
surveillance business model,” (Cohen, 2009). Not asking for explicit consent, and using anonymity to sanitize the tagging of
individuals are components of behavioral targeting that can destroy trust in e-commerce. Even if consumers are anonymous,
these advertising networks are silently collecting data to influence their purchase decisions. One motivation for privacy is to
protect autonomy, and block the use of information to change power dynamics within a relationship (Waldo, Lin et al., 2007).
Behavioral Targeting: A Case Study
Proceedings of the Fifteenth Americas Conference on Information Systems, San Francisco, California August 6th-9th 2009 9
Behavioral targeting without consent threatens the autonomy of consumers, and can undermine the trust and expectations of
benevolence that customers associate with a name brand.
Another concern behavioral targeting triggers is its resemblance to techniques employed by hackers and viruses. Compare the
case of Levis.com planting Web beacons in their customer‟s browsers to the virus technique known as a Trojan horse. Like a
Trojan horse, a seemingly benign file from Levis.com web site is downloaded. It then releases its payload – no less than
seven Web beacons connecting the unsuspecting visitor to multiple advertising networks. For a firm like Levis, whose brand
has been carefully crafted to align with American symbols of individualism and independence, its role as an enabler of
widespread consumer tracking could be very damaging.
Many streams of research arise from these findings. This case study looks at a single web site. The next objective is a detailed
profile by industry as to the levels of use of behavioral targeting methods.
Another important question is awareness by consumers, as to their exposure and susceptibility to behavioral targeting. This
can be illuminated by a study of the level of awareness consumers have regarding these practices, and whether an increased
level of awareness is related to a decrease in trust in e-commerce.
In the meantime, what can consumers do to protect their privacy? Right now there are few options. Conti suggests that
abstinence or withdrawal from the online world is the only method guaranteed to work (Conti, 2009), but it is not a practical
alternative. One simple and relatively effective method is to clear both cookies and temporary Internet files at the end of each
browsing session. This will delete both third party cookies and the Web bugs saved in the browser cache. In order to develop
other methods a research project has been planned to examine the types targeting tags obtained through Web browsing. The
goal will be to discover behavior targeting tags associated with specific browsers, and develop reliable methods to block and
erase those tags.
SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The consumer tracking being conducted with tools such as browser cookies, Web beacons, and Flash cookies is largely
invisible during ordinary Web browsing. The image files used for Web beacons cannot be seen on the page, and their size is
kept small to minimize any performance impact that might make them noticeable. One defense for behavioral targeting is that
the information being collected is anonymous. This defense does not address the one sided power that tracking can gives a
marketer to influence an anonymous but very real consumer with their online purchases.
The Future of Privacy Forum (2009d), a privacy advocacy group, has recommended an “affirmative consent model” for
behavioral targeting, meaning that consumers explicitly give consent (i.e., opt-in) to data collection and data sharing within
advertising networks. On February 12, 2009 the FTC released new recommendations for behavioral targeting to increase the
transparency of targeted ads (2009c). At the very least, e-commerce sites should consult their customers about what type of
information is being collected. They should conduct focus groups with customers, and carry out walk-throughs where these
data collection methods are explained in neutral terms. The availability of opt-in and out-out mechanisms needs to be
carefully considered, and probably revised to become more robust and comprehensive.
There are forces taking shape that will alter the current behavioral targeting landscape. E-commerce sites should act quickly
to restore consumer trust by providing more transparency to data collection practices, and implementing mechanisms of
explicit consent for behavioral targeting. As FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has proclaimed, “People should have dominion
over their computers … The current „don‟t ask, don‟t tell‟ in online tracking and profiling has to end,” (Story, 2007).
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