Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TACOs for Christmas Breakfast

Every Christmas my husband loves to tell everyone the “Brenda Christmas Taco” story. Nothing is private in our family. Nothing is private online either, but we will get to that in a few minutes. In 2006, we traveled with my mom from our home in Chicago to my home state of Arizona to celebrate Christmas with my twin sister and her then-boyfriend, now-husband in Mesa.

Mom stayed at my sister’s townhouse, and we stayed at a nearby hotel. I selected this hotel because it was more of a studio apartment than a hotel room, but secretly more important to me, it was across the street from Macayo’s – my favorite Mexican restaurant in the valley. I have lived in three states since moving from Scottsdale this last time in 1997. I constantly crave good Arizona style Mexican food. It really can only be found in Arizona and at Macayo’s in particular. The week before Christmas, I was excited to see my sister, but  I was just as excited to have Macayo’s tacos, enchiladas, and cheese crisps every day of our 10 day visit.

I did eat lunch or dinner every day at Macayo’s that trip, and I was in taco heaven. I saw every day as being a sort of last meal request day knowing I would be leaving the land of good Mexican food too soon. On Christmas morning, I woke up hungry and sad that Macayo’s would be closed. My sister’s holiday dinner wasn’t until 2:00, and I was sure it wouldn’t include Mexican food. In our typical bantering style, my husband told me how lucky I was to have such a wonderful, loving husband to spend Christmas.

Laughing at him, I said, “Well, ok, you are going to have to prove that one.” He replied with his usual confidence “Give me a challenge, and I’ll be happy to prove it!” I thought for a second, and then I knew what the perfect Christmas morning challenge would be – tacos for breakfast. I gave him the challenge. While I showered and dressed, he intently researched “the Christmas taco situation” on his laptop. He said he would be right back without saying where he was going. He arrived back to the room with tacos all right – from a Jack-in-the-Box drive-through. I had to admit it, he had conquered the challenge, and I was impressed.

Something we both noticed using our computers the next few weeks was ads and survey requests for fast-food restaurants kept popping up. I’m sure we only took note, since we don’t eat at fast-food restaurants often, because of the now infamous “Brenda Christmas Taco” story. Were we being targeted by advertisers tracking our online searches and web browsing? Yes, of course we were as all of us are constantly tracked online through web cookies. Consumer privacy on the Internet is nonexistent really. Or is it?

I regularly follow social media privacy and marketing based studies as part of my executive consulting business, and also simply because I am just one of those geek-girls that find the subject interesting. There is an exciting new “free” consumer privacy application that everyone should know about and consider. It is called “TACO”. Here is an article by Jeremy Kirk of IDG News Service that appeared in PCWorld.com earlier this year.

Browser Add-on Locks out Targeted Advertising

A Harvard University fellow has developed a browser extension that stops advertising networks from tracking a person's surfing habits, such as search queries and content they view on the Web.  The extension, called Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out (TACO), enables its users to opt out of 27 advertising networks that are employing behavioral advertising systems, wrote Christopher Soghoian, who developed it, on his Web site.

Soghoian, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, modified a browser extension Google released under an Apache 2 open-source license.

Google's opt-out plugin for Internet Explorer and Firefox blocks cookies delivered by its Doubleclick advertising network. A cookie is a small data file stored in a browser that can track a variety of information, such as Web sites visited and search queries, and transmit that information back to the entity that placed the cookie in the browser.

Google's opt-out plugin comes as the company announced plans last week to target advertisements based on the sites people visit. Targeted advertising is seen as a way for advertisers to more precisely find potential customers as well as for Web site publishers to charge higher advertising rates.  But the behavioral advertising technologies have raised concern over how consumers get enrolled in the programs, what data is being tracked and how the data is protected.

Many advertising networks will let consumers add an opt-out cookie to their browser, which means their Web activity won't be traced. But Soghoian wrote that if someone clears cookies from their browser, they'd have to go through the opt-out process again, which can be complicated if a couple dozen opt-out cookies have already been set. Firefox, for example, has a privacy setting that will clear cookies automatically when a browser is closed.

"This is obviously not a reasonable thing to expect," he wrote.

Soghoian's TACO extension sets permanent opt-out cookies for Google's network and 26 others, even if the cookies are flushed from the browser. Since some Web sites use multiple advertising cookies, TACO puts a total of 41 opt-out cookies on a machine, Soghoian wrote.

Ultimately, TACO is temporary fix for a long-term issue. Ideally, there would be a single, universal opt-out cookie which would be honored by marketers, Soghoian wrote. The problem is that for privacy reasons, cookies can't be accessed by domains that didn't set the cookie in the first place. Another solution would be adding a way for browsers to send an opt-out HTTP header that is respected by online advertisers. But browser makers such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, Mozilla would have to agree on a technical specification, Soghoian wrote. That may not be in those companies' best interests.  "If the browser vendors went through the hard work of designing and implementing such a system, they'd likely also turn it on by default, as they did with pop-up blockers," Soghoian wrote.

That could mean a nail in the coffin for behavioral advertising systems. TACO can be downloaded on Mozilla's extensions site, but users must have a free developer account. Soghoian's Web site also has TACO, where it can be downloaded without signing up.

My husband and I have both downloaded and used TACO. We agree it works well. We have also noticed a marked increase in page loading speed with our Firefox web browser. It will be interesting to see what other Internet online leaders will do with providing a more universal cookie opt-out program in the near future. For now, there is more than one type of TACO to love on Christmas  morning or any other morning. 

Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukkah!

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