The advertising industry has changed significantly since the advent of the internet, and companies are constantly finding new ways to track and understand potential customers. One question that remains is whether privacy can be preserved while these entities create more and better methods for gathering information on internet users.
The most common way ad companies follow people online are with cookies—data that track your online browsing habits from one website to the next. People often easily delete cookies from their browsers, but tools such as super cookies and fingerprinting are harder to escape. Super cookies hide in hard-to-find places in your browser and track your history, and fingerprinting involves a tracker looking at the unique properties of your browser, such as the version of the browser you’re running, your screen size, the plug-ins you have and other data, to identify you.
As people become more aware of how advertisers can invade their privacy online, some consumers are taking control of their data in a way that is much more advanced than using ad-blocking software. They are using data vaults, available from companies like Personal, to essentially lock their data in a digital vault that allows them to decide with whom to share their data. Users can choose what businesses they trust with their personal details and even request some kind of value exchange, such as a discount or an actual payment, from a company that wants their information. You want my details? What are you offering in return?
The idea of a value exchange is already prevalent in the world of data. Many know Facebook is mining their information, but they use it anyway, because they value the service. “I’m willing to give you more information about myself if I know on a consistent basis you’re giving me something back of value, something that’s relevant,” Catherine Hays, executive director of The Wharton Future of Advertising Program at the University of Pennsylvania, told Truthdig.
Facebook is also at the forefront of location-based advertising techniques. As Popular Science recently noted, Facebook will be using cellphone location data to see when users go to certain stores, information it will then sell to advertisers to show how well their social media ads are working.
“We’re seeing that contextualization is really important,” Hays said. The more companies know about where people are going, what they’re looking at online and how it all relates to their current situation in life, she said, the better they can target potential customers. Hays called this the new trend of utilizing “connectedness.”
With the array of new technologies available, advertising entities are nearing the point where they will be able to use facial and voice recognition technologies, weather data and your physical location to decide what ad experience is likely to work best on you. If it’s raining and you’re near a store that sells umbrellas, for example, you might suddenly see an advertisement for that store on your cellphone. The more companies know about the person they are targeting, the better they can customize their efforts.
Companies seeking higher profits and having access to ever more information on consumers can pose risks to privacy in ways many Americans don’t yet realize. Cooper Quintin, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained how significant the effects can be.
“Some of the privacy concerns are essentially [that] there are all of these hundreds of companies that are getting to see what you are looking at every day on the web, and they’re selling that information to each other,” he said. “They’re getting to see everything that you look at, even if you’re completely unaware of it.” In the past, he noted, a brick-and-mortar store owner would only know what you bought at his or her store. When you’re being followed online, companies know what you looked at, what you bought, which store you went to next, what news you read on the way and other information about you.
Such access has serious implications, Quintin said. He used the example of someone being followed as he or she visited websites to read about colon cancer; a company tracking that person might sell that information to his or her health care provider, which could then raise rates.