Safe way to view online ads?
August 14, 2019 5:53 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn more about online advertising and I want to check out some real-life examples, but I don't want to compromise safety or my own ad preferences. Is there a safe way to interact and explore targeted ads online?

I use an ad blocker and generally avoid ads in my personal/professional life. But as a learning exercise I'd like to experiment with different 'characters' to see how online advertising changes and adapts to different demographics.

Is there a good way to do this safely from my own computer and wifi? Would a virtual machine and VPN do the trick? Or would I need to get a second computer and lug it to a coffee shop or something? Ideally I'd like to do this without spending any money.
posted by mannermode to Computers & Internet (3 answers total)
I'm not sure what you mean by "safely" as the "danger" people talk about with ad tracking is just an invasion of privacy that comes from being tracked. If you are deliberately opting into tracking there is literally no danger. Trackers connect the activities you do online via cookies that are stored on your browser, so it's quite easy to do this: the simplest way is to just install/use a different browser when you want to be tracked, do the activity you are testing, and observe ads. As long as you don't log into any permanent accounts on that other browser like your email it won't leak out. Then when you want to reset your persona just delete all site specific cookies and other data and you'll be fine. Chrome incognito mode sort of does this but it's more paranoid so some of the ad trackers won't work and it won't be an authentic experience.

Websites aren't really able to track you via anything other than cookies and vague geographical data (basically which city you're in) unless you opt into it. You only need a VPN if you're trying to hide what you do from your ISP (bittorrent, etc) or if you want to bypass the geographical filters.
posted by JZig at 9:21 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]

Not a perfect fit but you might be interested in ProPublica's crowdsourcing tool Political Ad Collector. It gives you the option to view their collection of Facebook ads scraped from users of their ad-catcher plugin (as a way for people to help train their AI.) So it will safely show you ads that would normally be hidden from your profile, but I don't think you have access to any demographic data about why.
posted by anonymisc at 6:50 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]

The easiest was to do this is to create some new Chrome ids and do some searching in character on each one with your ad block off. You'll quickly see results related to your location and search history.

Make sure your antivirus software is running and up to date and you should be fine.
posted by ananci at 10:05 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]

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