Sophos security specialist says shopping shows in search (and here’s how to stop it)

Planning a nice gift for that special someone? Beware, because if you’ve spent a pretty penny and plenty of hours of research, the secret might be out long before you give that gift.

True story: when this journalist was shopping for the present for his soon-to-be-wife a few months ago (now wife), he found it interesting that so many of the sites reliant on Google Ads were showing prices for some of the products he was looking up.

Not all were making an appearance, but somehow, some of the things he was considering buying were popping up in the ads of other websites, even if other sites he was visiting had nothing in common with the products he was considering purchasing.

Security experts are on high alert about it, too, as it’s a fairly new form of targeted advertising, harvesting the information about your searches and providing it to advertisers, and potentially ruining any holiday gift giving plans you might have had in the works.

“It’s really hard to keep a secret from your family if you share a computer these days,” said Chester Wisniewski, one of the security experts employed by Sophos Labs.

That’s because if you use Google or Yahoo, there’s a good chance your searches are being tracked with information stored, providing advertising networks owned by each company small enough amounts of information to keep advertising products from those searches to you.

And it’s not just ads popping up on the search engines, but for any website that uses the ad networks owned by the companies.

For instance, when I was looking up on Google record players to buy the fiancee (now wife), I received ads on other websites using Google Ads for products I was looking up, many of them from local retailers but still with the Google Ad logo in the corner of each advertisement, telling me where it was coming from.

While it’s not a big deal from a browsing point of view for most of us — hey, you can just ignore it — this sort of search does have the potential to ruin the best of plans if someone you’re buying for is using the same computer.

Thankfully, there are quite a few ways to deal with this dilemma.

“Obviously, the easiest answer is to use a different computer,” said Wisniewski, adding that it’s easy to lessen an impact if you do your shopping at work on your break, or if you switch to a personal gadget, like a phone or tablet specific to you.

“The safest thing to do is use mobile devices,” he said, adding that “the persistence of that stuff is a lot less, so use non shared devices.”

But there’s more you can do, too, and if you share computers at home, most modern web browsers offer features to help you get around this tracking method.

“The incognito or private mode does a really good job of blocking all that tracking stuff,” Wisniewski told GadgetGuy. “When I did some shopping, I did it on the private mode on Firefox.”

Not all web browsers support the technology, but if you have something recent, check under the “File” part of the menu and look for words like “incognito” or “private” to open a new window that can evade those tracking methods, shopping from there. Hopefully this helps, and your plans won’t go to waste.