Will targeted ads ruin your Christmas surprise?

How online ads could expose holiday gift secr... 02:21

Cybersecurity is a growing concern this booming holiday season. While the National Retail Federation predicted a shopping record -- with the average American making 44 percent of their holiday purchases online -- it could also be a record in surprises ruined.

With so much talk of stolen credit cards and identity theft, parents might be overlooking another aspect of online privacy. Targeted ads could spoil this year's Christmas surprises long before Santa slides down your chimney.

"If you go shopping for something, then later someone else is using your computer, they could see the related ads," CNET senior editor Dan Ackerman said on "CBS This Morning." "If you look at a pair of boots or a jacket or something, you could get that exact ad on, let's say, your Facebook feed, and you'd go, 'Oh, that's clearly what my mother or wife is shopping for.'"

But the strategy of tracking customers isn't new. Ackerman pointed out that companies have been capitalizing on similar technology off-line as well.

"It's almost like the loyalty cards at the supermarket and drug store where they keep track of what you buy and print you out a coupon for something that's related, it's the online version of that," he said.

The purpose is to build a profile around individuals' spending habits so companies can keep you swiping your card. But compared to shopping in a single store, ad tracking catches every site you visit.

"The difference here is that so many different web sites and advertisers are working together, it crosses the lines between different shopping sites, social media sites, news sites, so the information doesn't stay on one site, it goes all over the place."

But the unintended consequence of a spoiled surprise can be avoided. The trick is to reduce the number of tracking cookies your browser accepts -- that may be easier said than done. One way to limit the number of targeted ads is by using the little-known Digital Ad Alliance's AdChoices button at the top corner of ads.

"If you click on that blue triangle, it doesn't really tell you what it's for, it'll take you to, after a couple clicks, to an AdChoices page where you can opt-out to a lot of these things," Ackerman said.

He noted it's important to do this on any browsers you use as the changes won't carry over.

For anyone looking for a more low-tech option, Ackerman suggested having each computer user surf on a different browser so online history can't cross-pollinate.