Examples of being tracked/targeted from Web browsing

Last Wednesday I saw someones pic with a small pond in it. I asked her about it and all she said was it was a prefab pond but didn’t provide a link.

I then googled “prefab ponds” and spent some time poking around various sites about ponds and waterfalls. I didn’t buy anything, ask for info to be sent to me, or sign up for any email lists. This was in an older version of Safari.

Yesterday I received via snail mail, a post card from one of the companies I had looked at. I just went back into Safari and sure enough, they had the patio pond I’d left on my screen last.

I get catalogs from less than 5 companies via mail. None of them are lawn/garden type. Typically the only post cards I get are local window/siding/roofing contractors and a couple of local restaurants.

This was addressed to Resident, not my name, but I’m still not sure it was a coincidence?

We always joke about things appearing in browser ads that we talked about recently, or one of us seeing ads for something the other was researching, but this is a whole other level of weird.


Moved this to its own thread. Being ad-targeted based on random browsing is something that a lot of people notice but have trouble pinning down. Having it result in postal mail is more than generally happens, but if it isn’t just coincidence (which seems unlikely in this case), shows how much the advertisers now know about you.

Just about everything you visit, search for, respond to, or purchase online makes you fair game for tracking. And if you have a smart TV, or cable or satellite service, add in whatever you see or choose to watch and you might begin seeing commercials for ponds and waterfalls too. Also add in terrestrial mailing lists. It’s addressable, or over the top, advertising. It’s been around for decades before the birth of the WWW and is not limited to online or tv ads:

Thanks for the thread Adam!

We just have an antenna so I don’t think we’re getting hit there.

I have definitely found emails where I’ve thought “I don’t remember signing up for this but I think I was at this site recently”

The snail mail is a whole new level of invasive.

How does one prevent this? Change IPs frequently? Use something like TOR?

I’m going to call them and tell them what I think about it. Though the coupon was attractive :roll_eyes:


It’s not just TV and online, and it is nothing new. If you use a credit card you are being tracked offline as well as online:


The Apple/Goldman Sachs credit card is the only one I know of that does not track purchases. You are the only one that can track your purchases.

Unfortunately, this article is strong on Google hype and very weak on details.

How can Google do this without having my credit card information? I’ve never given them my card numbers for anything and I don’t pay for anything using an Android phone.

They say this is being done in an aggregated and anonymized manner, but also claim to be able to link purchases with specific ad campaigns. It doesn’t seem possible to do both at the same time. Hopefully they will publish a paper with more details.

According to the Cliqz article, they are using Google mobile apps (like Maps) to track your location. They generate their correlation data by noting that you saw or clicked on an ad at home and later spent time in the advertised store.

If that’s what’s going on, then there are easy things you can to to thwart this:

  • Use anti-tracking features of your web browser. Which you probably should be doing anyway.
  • Use ad-blockers to block more trackers
  • Configure your mobile apps (especially from known-offenders like Google and Facebook) to not provide location data or if that’s not possible (e.g. for a navigation app) to only provide it when the app is running, but not at any other time.
  • Consider switching to mobile apps from different vendors, if possible. For example, Apple Maps instead of Google Maps.
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Here are just a very few examples:

None of these articles say what Google and Facebook are actually doing to collect this data. They just say it is being done and don’t say a thing about how, aside from tracking cookies on web sites all over the Internet.

My question stands: How can Google correlate a single purchase from a merchant with a Google account if Google doesn’t have any of my credit card information.

I think there is a lot of fear-mongering in these articles. And until someone shows me a technical paper explaining exactly how they are able to pull this off, my opinion will not be changing.

Google and Facebook are violating people’s privacy in a great many ways, but they aren’t omnipotent data gods, no matter how much vague hand-waving the blogosphere throws around.


When you make a purchase on a web site, some sellers will pass along to various outside companies (including Google) what you bought. This can be an explicit transaction, or more passive (i.e.: you do a search on Google so it has your info and sets a cookie, then you make the purchase from the retailer and the retailer uses Google to track use of its site.)

Google doesn’t actually need to know that you purchased an item from a retailer. It’s often just enough for you to browse the item in order for Google to pick up on the fact and then use this information to tailor its search results.


The article I’m referring to is talking about off-line purchases. It is claiming that I can walk into my local Target (or whatever) retail store and buy something with my credit card and Google will somehow be able to associate that purchase with my user profile.

I can understand how they can tell I’m in the Target store and probably buying something. But the article is claiming that they can know if I bought the item I was searching for earlier that day. Which makes no sense unless Google is somehow receiving detailed transaction information, including personal ID information (like the credit card number), which banks are not supposed to be giving out.

And it assumes that Google has that information associated with my profile. Which they might have if I gave it to them (e.g. registering a card with a Google wallet for making purchases), but it shouldn’t be possible if I didn’t give it to them.

None of these policies refer to what that article is talking about. They are all dealing with data scraped from tracking cookies and location data collected by Google apps. Nothing about off-line product purchases.

And even for those categories, it is simply saying that they collect it. It is not saying how they perform this collection.

My wife maintains a Facebook account. I do not. We have a wireless home network configured as a NAT router through the IP connection provided by our cable model.

I would visit web sites as a result of some Internet searches for various and sundry things on my iPad device which was connected to NAT network provided by my wireless router. My wife would subsequently see items on her Facebook page related to the items that I searched for.

It became clear that some of the web sites I visited captured and shared the IP address of my cable modem with Facebook, and that Facebook had correlated the IP with her account.

My SO and I have that happen often.

Sometimes if one of us is browsing Marketplace in FB, the other will see similar items when we go in next. He rarely uses FB and always logs out but it still happens.

And we definitely get ads related to searches either of us do on the network.


I would imagine a lot of the information about offline purchases comes from the merchants themselves.

Do you use a store’s rewards program? E-coupons? Those track every purchase you make in those stores. If you don’t think that information is for sale, regardless of companies’ stated privacy policies, you’re wrong. The only way to avoid that is to not use a store’s electronic accounts at all when shopping—which cuts you out of the best discounts in most stores.

Google doesn’t need your card number. They’re getting your purchases directly from the stores.

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Google mixes the data they collect together:

“ Google offers a variety of ways to measure the impact that your online ads have on your physical store. Eligibility usually depends on how many interactions people have with your Google Ads and where your business is located. These measurement capabilities range from measuring store visit indicators, like calls or clicks on directions to your business, to the ability to measure actual sales in your store.

Measure foot traffic with store visits

Store visit conversions use advanced machine learning, robust mapping technology, and opted-in user location data to measure footfall after interactions with your ads. Store visits are available for Search, Shopping, Google Display Network and YouTube campaigns. The metric provides insight into the number of users who visited your store up to 30 days after they clicked on your Search or Display ad, or watched or engaged with your YouTube ad.

Measure offline intent with local actions

Whether you are eligible for store visits or not, local action conversions are a great way to understand consumer interest in your local offerings.

Local actions conversions happen on Google’s products and services (for example, Google Maps), and are automatically defined by Google Ads. Actions you can measure include directions clicks, calls, orders, menu views and website visits.

There’s more info here:

Excellent point worth repeating for emphasis.

If you think that $1 discount Target is giving you for some trivial item is worth your privacy, you almost deserve to have it invaded.

Don’t sign up for anything that requires your email address or phone number. When Banana Republic tells you giving them your cell number would get you a $30 discount on your $100 purchase, that just gives you an idea of how valuable that kind of data is to their exploitation. Don’t fall for it. You’re not making the deal. They are.

And to those who do fall for it: sorry, but you asked for it.

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“Don’t sign up for anything that requires your email address or phone number.”

Which means never buy anything online or even traditional mail order, with or without a discount. They have to ship it to you somehow, which means they know your physical address which is all they need to correlate all of your purchases and any other data (e.g. type and last 4 digits of the credit card, ISP via the IP, time of day you shop…) across stores and social, where even people who try to stay somewhat private provide all sorts of ‘unimportant’ info such as birth month and neighborhood as grist to the data mill. It’s not exactly practical to move to get a new physical address and few people are allowed to have things shipped to their work address.

I don’t think the discount card things have much to do with a data grab (so many ways to grab data, why pay for it?) They tend to make people buy more stuff, more often. Discount cards predate the computer era by at least two decades, coupons by more than that, and any savings the card user gets are paid for by higher average prices.

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“With offline conversions you can measure how much your ads across Meta technologies lead to real-world outcomes, such as purchases in your stores, phone orders, bookings and more. Compare offline conversions from your physical stores to the list of people who saw or clicked on your ads. This will help you understand the effectiveness of your ad campaigns.

Use offline conversions to:

  • Track offline activity and see how much of it can be attributed to your ads.

  • Measure the offline return on your ad spend.

  • Reach people offline and show ads to people based on the actions they take offline. You can also create lookalike audiences to deliver ads across Meta technologies to people who are similar to your offline customers.”

Not really. Amazon needs your address to ship your order. But Target does not need it when you walk through the checkout. Neither does Banana Republic. Divide et impera. Only share the absolute minimum required for that specific purchase.

But ultimately, you decide what your data is worth. If somebody’s willing to sacrifice their privacy for a $5 discount or because of some raffle with potential winnings, well, they were warned. Personal responsibility also means keeping your own greed in check. Harsh perhaps, but true nevertheless.


Here’s just one example of the many ways Google tracks:

“Google reportedly paid Mastercard millions of dollars for data on what people have been buying. It used that data to build a tool for advertisers that would break down whether people who had clicked online ads later went on to purchase a product at a physical retail store.

Bloomberg reported in detail how the process works. It starts with a customer who’s logged into a Google account on the web clicking a Google ad. That person browses a certain item, but doesn’t purchase it. Later on, if they use their MasterCard to buy that item in a physical store within 30 days, Google will send the advertiser a report about that product and the effectiveness of its ads, with a section for “offline revenue” listing the retail sales.“

And here’s the scoop on Google’s newest analytics platform:

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