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More Tracking Mania: PDFs with Ads

6 December 2007

Another company is getting into the trackable ads game: Adobe. They've announced a new product: PDF files with ads. Publishers can upload PDF files to Adobe's web site; the files will be modified to display ads via Yahoo!'s advertising network. When the PDF file is viewed, "contextual ads are dynamically matched to the content of the document." The ads are displayed in a sidebar; they aren't printed, and don't obscure the content of the document.

Ads alone are perhaps unobjectionable. After all, someone has to pay for web content. The problem, though, is that user behavior is tracked. From reading the privacy section of the Technical Details page, I believe that the viewer invokes a web browser to retrieve and render ads. This means that viewing a PDF incurs all the privacy and security risks of Web browsing, including cookies, web bugs, and Javascript.

There is one bright spot: at least in the current version, users are shown a "network connection dialog" before any ads are retrieved. If you say "no", you won't see the ads and you won't be tracked. You can even select "Remember my action". Frankly, I suspect that that won't last; given a choice, most people will decline to see ads. Time will tell; for now, I applaud Adobe for including that feature.

Another interesting question is what the ads will be like. Today, they're restricted to text. Adobe says, though, that images and graphics will be implemented. They also note that the ads may include Javascript, at the discretion of the advertiser; that in turn may mean that there can be pop-ups.

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