It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the Internet changed everything, because it most certainly did. Almost all of humanity’s combined knowledge can be found on the Internet. Friends and family members that live thousands of miles away from each other can be brought together with a single click. There are billions of websites are out there that Internet users browse daily that have a wide range of utility. But as you browse the Internet, have you noticed that the ads you see on websites are starting to follow you? And that they relate to previous Internet searches or websites you’ve visited? These targeted ads are consequences of data tracking, the analysis of Internet user behavior on websites in order to identify buying intentions or interests. The blog posts I write will discuss data tracking, the companies tracking data, how Internet data is tracked, and methods we consumers can use to push back against the collection of our data. This blog post will discuss the concept of data tracking, the companies that track consumer data, and methods of data tracking.
As I said above, data tracking is the analysis of our Internet behavior in order to target consistently annoying personalized ads at us. Data tracking monitors your Internet activity similar to how your credit report tracks you with regards to your financial history. The companies that collect this information are called data brokers. Data brokers take the information they gather and sell it to other companies, namely advertising and marketing companies, in order to directly appeal and advertise to specific groups of Internet users. This is the reason why ads seem to follow us; companies are getting your Internet data in real time and directly advertising to you.
Who are these companies that are tracking our data? Some are foreign to a majority of consumers while others are names we see every day. For example, Facebook and Twitter, repositories of much of our personal data, are some of the top data brokers. And for good reason: we willingly publish so much information about ourselves on these public platforms, and as their privacy statements make clear, what we share is readily available to the rest of the world, including other data brokers and advertising companies. Facebook further developed it’s utility to advertisers in 2014, when it bought Atlas, an ad server, from Microsoft. Atlas allows marketers to measure consumer data and target consumers across all digital sites, not just limited Facebook, and even across every type of device. Other data broker companies are relatively unknown to the average consumer, for example the largest data broker, Axciom, which collects on average 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans. Another such company is eBureau, a company that sells Internet profiles to online marketers complete with a real-time scoring system for about 220 million Americans, so that marketers can sell you exactly what you need when you need it.
Now that you know who is tracking our data and why, how do these sites collect information from their users in the first place? The main method of tracking is through “cookies,” small bits of text that are downloaded to one’s browser as one uses the web. These text files contain small strings of numbers that can be used to identify individual computers. Cookies can come the website the user is visiting, called first-party cookies, or from some other website, called third party cookies. First party cookies used by websites are typically not used for advertising, but to analyze website traffic and figure out who is visiting the site and why in order to increase traffic. Third party cookies are more insidious, and can come from any of the companies I listed above without consumer approval or awareness. Most websites have a variety of third party cookies hidden within them. Facebook and Twitter widgets that one sees on many websites also contain these third party cookies. Cookies lack any personal identifiers and aggregate a user’s tracking data from multiple sites to infer interests. This “aggregated not personal” concept is the reason why these tactics are legal; they are anonymous data bits used for marketing purposes and not to track your credit or finances, which is heavily regulated by the government.
At this point all of this data tracking sounds a little too Big Brother, and though there can be positive benefits to receiving personalized ads for items you may actually really need, the easy dissemination of our data is nonetheless frightening. Fear not consumers, in my next blog post I will go over various methods to prevent data brokers from analyzing your Internet data.