Ads a little too personal? How to block ad tracking on your phone, regain your privacy

Facebook allows users the ability to look up why an ad was targeted to them. (WTHR Photo / Scott Hums)
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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — It's becoming a common experience for mobile phone users everywhere. You open your phone and there is an ad for something you just Googled or mentioned or walked by.

Sometimes it's even something you swear you haven't searched for or texted about at all.

Ami Fletcher said she's creeped out by targeted ads. (WTHR Photo)
Ami Fletcher said she's creeped out by targeted ads. (WTHR Photo)

"I was talking to my husband at home and my phone was sitting on the table and I mentioned going out to breakfast and lo and behold, within two minutes, that popped up as a Facebook ad of where I wanted to go and have breakfast," said Ami Fletcher of Greenwood. "It's either something you've searched, somewhere you've been...something you've said! And that's, that's the strange part to it and they seem to have gotten progressively worse."

After awhile, she says it all just feels creepy.

"That is creepy," Fletcher said. "I said twilight zone stuff I'm telling ya!"

Fletcher is experiencing targeted ads.

Companies collect vast amounts of data about us to see how we behave, so they can better predict what we'll click and consume.

"Consume more media, consume more news stories, go buy things. It is you as a set of eyes and a purse. That's what they care about," explained Fred Cate, Professor of Law at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Senior Fellow with the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.

It's like a high-tech spy that we let stalk us, willingly, in exchange for convenience and technology.

Fred Cate is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. (WTHR Photo / Ryan Thedwall)
Fred Cate is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. (WTHR Photo / Ryan Thedwall)

"I always laugh and say if the government 30 years ago had said, 'we're going to sell you, we're going to make you wear a tracker. You're going to have to. It's going to be like a monitoring bracelet around your ankle' or something. People would have been in an uproar. They would have said 'this is a civil liberties violation. This is terrible'," Cate said. "Instead, they now get us to go out and pay $1,000 to carry our own tracker that we then report all this data to somebody."

"They're micro-chipping you by your phone! You're just - you're allowing it," Fletcher said.

And here's how.

They track emails, social media posts, photos, contacts, texts, Google searches, shoppers cards, what we're listening to, what we're watching or streaming and where we've been, all through our phone. The information goes into a database that builds a profile.

If you have a Google account, you can see a summary of what the search company knows about you by looking at your ad settings.

You can receive ads based on your proximity to businesses. (WTHR Animation)

"I'm walking past a Starbucks, so I get a Starbucks ad. That's very relevant. They absolutely do that," Cate said. "That's contextual data. But what we see now is not just contextual data being used to target ads, but behavioral data. So how does this individual behave? So if you know every day I stop and get a drink home from work, you can then target much more specifically. If you know what my drink is, you can target more specifically."

It works for advertisers. More information means more money in their pocket.

Cate says it translates into a 12 to 17% increase in the response rate to ads.

But what if you want to stop the ads altogether?

Unless you trash your phone, Cate says you really can't, but you can limit what you see and how much they target you.

It starts by really paying attention when you get a new app or sign up for emails.

It's that fine print nobody likes to read, but should.

"When somebody offers you a service and then says by the way, we want to access all of your contacts - why?? Who would you possibly let access all of your contacts? The key is to make a decision and not just to let this all wash over us," Cate said.

How To Limit Targeted Ads on Your Phone:

  • Go to settings, then privacy and click on location services. Make sure none of the apps say they're "always" using your location and collecting your data. Some you can choose "never". Others, "while using the app". "That's the ideal setting because then you know you're doing something that activates location," Cate said.
  • Limit ad tracking with your phone's built in settings. Again, this won't stop targeted ads, but it will reduce them.

A demonstration on how to limit ad tracking on an iPhone. (WTHR / Scott Hums)
A demonstration on how to limit ad tracking on an iPhone. (WTHR / Scott Hums)
For iOS devices

  1. Open "Settings"
  2. Select the Privacy option
  3. Scroll down and open the Advertising option
  4. Turn on "Limit Ad Tracking"

For Android devices

  1. Open "Settings"
  2. Select the Google option
  3. Select Ads
  4. Turn on the "Opt out of Ads Personalization" option
  • On an iPhone, the advertising section under privacy is also where you can reset the advertising identifier. This essentially throws away all the data gathered about you on your device so far. It's important to note that this will build up again, so you can do this every couple of months.
  • Finally, on Facebook in settings and privacy, there's also an ads section. By going into ad preferences you can choose "not allowed" for each area that Facebook uses data to choose the ads you see.

"I'm hoping that this does limit it. I'm definitely going to be tracking it more to see what changes happen and then I'll let you know," Fletcher said.

There is a downside to this. You will still get ads, just not about things of interest to you.

That might be even more annoying. For Ami Fletcher, it's worth a try to potentially keep advertisers from watching her every move.

More Tips for Limiting Targeted Ads

  • Clear your cookies periodically (and remember to do so on each of your devices. If you only do it on your phone, not your iPad, they're still collecting data on you)
  • Clear your Google history occasionally, too (again, on each device)
  • Use a private browser for web searches (again on all phones/tablets/computers)
  • Opt out of "interest-based" browsing, not only on Facebook, but also Twitter and Google and Apple
  • Make sure your spouse/children with connecting accounts are doing the same thing
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