New Pace Study Documents Levi’s Extensive Behavioral Targeting of Consumers

A researcher at Pace University has found solid evidence that Levis.com — in an example of a common practice — collects data on the browsing activities of consumers in order to target them for more online advertising. The study makes explicit the scale of behavioral tracking being conducted by mainstream companies like Levi’s.

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Contact: Bill Caldwell, Office of Public Information, Pace University, 212-346-1597, wcaldwell@pace.edu

Privacy issues wear jeans

NEW PACE STUDY DOCUMENTS LEVI’S EXTENSIVE BEHAVIORAL TARGETING OF CONSUMERS

Congressional hearings Thursday

Public debate heats up with Federal Trade Commission concerns

Researcher says “camouflaging the tracking of consumers can damage the perceived trustworthiness of an e-commerce site . . . and undermines the autonomy of consumers in their online shopping and purchase decisions.”

New York, NY – June 17, 2009 – A researcher at Pace University has found solid evidence that Levis.com — in an example of a common practice — collects data on the browsing activities of consumers in order to target them for more online advertising. The study makes explicit the scale of behavioral tracking being conducted by mainstream companies like Levi’s.

The study comes just as the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection prepares to hold hearings tomorrow (Thursday, June 18th) at 10 am: http://energycommerce.house.gov/index.php?option=com_jcalpro&Itemid=54&extmode=view&extid=60

Dwyer contacted Levi Strauss & Co in February to get the company’s comments on her findings but as of June 16 had received no response.

Unacknowledged tags. The study found that Levi’s places nine digital tags in the browsers of web site visitors, using these tags to track and aggregate consumer behavior and target additional messages, and allowing eight third-party companies to do the same.

None of the tags or other companies is acknowledged in the Levi’s privacy policy.

“This new study makes transparent the extent of behavioral tracking being conducted even by a ‘true blue’ company like Levi’s that stands for American individualism and freedom,” says the researcher, Catherine Dwyer, Ph.D., an associate professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems.

“Hidden persuaders.” For businesses, she says camouflaging the tracking of consumers can damage the perceived trustworthiness of an e-commerce site or the firm it represents.

For consumers, Dwyer says the advertising triggered by this latest generation of the ‘hidden persuaders’ made notorious by the 1957 book of that name by Vance Packard “undermines the autonomy of consumers in their online shopping and purchase decisions.”

This is the first academic study of behavioral targeting that describes the scale of these practices and questions the risks they pose for e-commerce.

To document the tracking mechanisms, Dwyer used freely available software including TamperData, a Firefox extension that logs all transactions with a browser.

Dwyer argues that “The Levi’s 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 Levi’s brand. The perceptions of integrity and benevolence that e-commerce sites labor to establish can be seriously damaged by behavioral targeting in its current state.”

“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.”

She adds: “In a consumer driven market, even the appearance of deceptive practices carries a great risk, and can result in a public relations nightmare.”

Cybercitizenship. Public debate on this issue is heating up dramatically. Recently Jon Leibowitz, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, warned online advertisers that they need to constrain this activity or regulation will increase. Online advertisers, Dwyer says, are protesting that restricting this type of tracking will be a burden and resisting any regulatory moves.

Dwyer, who teaches courses in “Cybercitizenship: Ethics and the Internet” and “Systems Analysis and Design” will present her paper at the 15th Americas Conference on Information Systems in San Francisco on August 8. It is available at http://csis.pace.edu/~dwyer/research/AMCISDwyer2009.pdf

Dwyer’s previous research on trust and privacy concerns within social networking sites has been published in scholarly journals, presented at international conferences, and cited in Agence France Presse, Computerworld, La Opinión, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

For 103 years Pace University has produced thinking professionals by providing high quality education for the professions on a firm base of liberal learning amid the advantages of the New York metropolitan area. A private university, Pace has campuses in New York City and Westchester County, New York, enrolling nearly 13,000 students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in its Lubin School of Business, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Lienhard School of Nursing, School of Education, School of Law, and Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. www.pace.edu

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