Marketers also are learning to overcome limitations with software cookies. One tech startup called Drawbridge claims to have found a way to link a person's laptop and mobile device by analyzing their movements online, enabling advertisers to reach the same consumer whether they're on their work computer or smartphone.
But how all that information is used and where it ends up is still unclear. The Federal Trade Commission, along with several lawmakers, has been investigating the "data broker" industry, companies that collect and sell information on individuals by pooling online habits with other information like court records, property taxes, even income. The Government Accountability Office concluded in November that existing laws have fallen behind the pace of technological advancements in the industry, which enables companies to aggregate large amounts of data without a person's knowledge or ability to correct errors.
"There are lots of potential uses of information that are not revealed to consumers," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. To protect themselves, "consumers still need to do quite a bit of shopping to make sure that they get (what) meets their needs the best and is the best price."
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