When we go online we are tracked by ad firms. Here’s why they do it, how they do it, and what we can do about it.
As of this moment while I’m reading my Facebook status on Firefox and browsing the web on Google Chrome, some 60 tracking sites are following me online.
These are firms that track my browsing habits, log the sites I visit, and create an online profile about me. They may not necessarily know my name, but they probably have built enough data about me to know where I come from, that I love photography and jazz music, that I am into writing and blogging, that I regularly visit social networking sites, that my favorite international news sites are CNN and Time, and that I often watch videos on YouTube.
With a fairly sizeable digital data about me, these tracking companies can now tailor specific ads so much so that when I visit a particularly site I am likely to see advertisements about cameras and photography, online music sites, and news and social media sites. Now that’s just me, a tiny microscopic speck of zeroes and ones in the internet universe. Yet I’m given this much attention. Actually everyone is.
According to a December 2011 statistics, there are 2.3 billion internet users in the world. Imagine how many of them are online at any given time. And each one is tracked.
Why Are We Followed?
Advertising is big business and it has shifted online. A report posted at Crowdscience revealed that in terms of revenue, the online advertising market size reached $14.9 billion in the first six months of 2011. Lots of money in this industry and everyone (most especially the big ones like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, etc.) wants a piece of the pie, if not the largest piece! Which is why these big names will almost always show up in all sorts of ads be it banners, searches, lines, displays, classifieds and even emails. And how do they target ads to online users? By knowing individual consumer likes, preferences, inclinations, tastes and behaviour.
How Are We Followed?
Today’s technology has created machines, bots and complex algorithms at the control of these big companies which power web pages with their cookies, databases, codes and trackers. Aside from the tech titans, more than a hundred other ad firms exist for the sole purpose of knowing where you go and what you visit online. They are data collectors which follow our movements over the internet. Then, as part of the system of targeted advertising, they show as items, products and services which we are in all probability most likely to click when we visit a certain page or site. When we click on an ad, half of the goal is reached. When we do an actual purchase online, the mission is accomplished. That’s billions worth of dollars by clicks alone! Alan Henry in his article at Lifehacker.com has this to say: “The real money is in taking your data and shacking up with third parties to help them come up with new ways to convince you to spend money, sign up for services, and give up more information.”
Should We Care?
I personally see it as invasive, at times alarming, and it becomes a privacy issue. Granted no harm is done when a tiny, inconspicuous cookie is placed at our computer, logged and recorded by our browser, everytime we visit a site. Just a simple code meant to facilitate the fast loading of a page when we visit it again. The means itself is questionable, so is the motive. When we go online there lurks beneath the surface, with us generally unaware, a seemingly shadowy web of conspiracy among giant firms whose overiding reason is profit. Online privacy is a ticklish issue, debatable on many fronts, almost a misnomer. When our small space in the internet is intruded by things we do not see, we must care. It is a natural instinct to be concerned about matters we are not aware of. No one likes unpleasant surprises.
What Can We Do?
An article by Doug Aamoth on Time.com shows us how we can “opt out of everything online”, outlining steps we can take to prevent our browsing habits from being tracked. There are also Do Not Track options on popular browsers. I have these enabled but with minimal effect. Using the Collusion add-on on Firefox and Chrome, I still see many ad firms tracking me. At least this now allowed me to see the tracking culprits.
It seems that in this battle we can’t do much, short of disconnecting ourselves from the online world which, at this time, is not an option. We are so much dependent and connected. Our work, business, studies, researches, hobbies, interests, vocations, inclinations, attitudes, social persona and professions more often than not require as to connect to the world wide web. That is the reality – when we go online, we are tracked. There is no hiding. We can only minimize the intrusion, but the encroachment on our online lives continue.