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A new worry for consumers: Cross-device tracking

Companies already know so much about us. As word got out about the sophistication of Target's data collection and the retailer's ability to produce lists of such things as which customers might be pregnant, it graphically demonstrated the hunger companies have to know all about our habits and interests.

Cell phone data, purchase history and what you look at on a company's website are cobbled together with other databases in attempt to better target consumers. While that technology can seem mind-boggling, the practice of tracking consumers across multiple devices is growing -- adding another layer to the mix as marketers build ever-richer profiles of us.

The emergence of this type of data collection led the Federal Trade Commission to schedule a meeting in the fall to pull together experts and determine the risks and benefits, and if any additional regulation is needed.

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"More consumers are connecting with the internet in different ways, and industry has responded by coming up with additional tools to track their behavior," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection said in a statement. "With the advent of new tracking methods, though, it's important to ensure that consumers' privacy remains protected as businesses seek to target them across multiple devices."

Essentially, the FTC said, cookies in Web browsers are no longer considered a complete enough picture about our interests.

Because marketers want to know more, they began trying to track people across their devices. Among the techniques they use are "deterministic" tracking and "probabilistic" tracking.

Deterministic tracking involves the process of the user signing into a service or platform and through that the consumer is linked to the devices. Probabilistic tracking uses information including the type of device, Internet protocol (IP) address and even fonts used to build a "digital fingerprint" that can link that person from one device to the next. That sort of data collection is of greater concern because, the FTC said, "the consumer has no ability to control it."

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What are the risks of following the same person and their habits as they move from PC to tablet to smartphone and back again?

At this point, most consumers are familiar with online behavioral advertising. You search for information about Rome and suddenly you start seeing ads for trips to Rome.

That information comes from the cookies in our browsers, and both the browsers themselves and the ad industry have provided ways to allow consumers to quit receiving targeted advertising or having some of their data mined. That's another concern about cross-device tracking: Consumers have less awareness that it's going on and fewer options to stop it.

Does cross-device tracking bring any benefits to consumers?

"If anything, it will mean consumers may stop seeing advertising and marketing pitches that don't relate to them," says Robert Siciliano, online safety expert for Intel Security. "This technology takes the guesswork out of determining who the consumer is and links them directly to their various online profiles, buying habits and consumer preferences."

That's the upside. It also means, at a minimum, that marketing companies will have a ton of information about us to sell. Perhaps more than we'd want anyone to know.

"It brings to mind when consumers make sensitive purchases," Siciliano said. "Purchases such as buying a gun or any items revolving around intimacy and their most personal life."

So, even if you've gone to great pains to ensure you leave no record of buying something you might not want others to know about, it's quite possible that it will still end up being documented.

The FTC will take comments about cross-device tracking that can be submitted online until Oct. 16.

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