Author: Content Team Blog Posting
Wednesday 4th August 2021 02:36 PM
How the Internet Knows What You Want, And What You Need
How the Internet Knows What You Want, And What You Need
Close, but not quite.
The internet, as an invaluable part of our lives, is infinitely complex and hard to grasp for some. Who could imagine so much of our daily lives being uploaded online? Just about everyone in the world has had an online experience, be it shopping, banking, surfing, or working.
One of the many concerns of online users is the necessity of memory. If a customer was in your online shop, they would find it a significant hassle to have to sign in every time they enter a shop, add an item to their cart, click out of pages, or browse descriptions. In the same way, precious time can be lost in the workforce if employees had to fill in their credentials every time they wanted access to the same documents or files.
Cookies, named after the computer science term “magic cookie”, was invented by a programmer by the name of Lou Montulli, described as “something passed between routines or programs that enables the receiver to perform some operation; a capability ticket or opaque identifier.” Cookies are small data packets that webpages load onto browsers, unique to every individual user. When a user returns back to the same URL, the computer sends back the cookie’s information to the server, which can detect that the same user has returned to the page. Simply put, cookies are nothing more than temporary files, saved on your computer or mobile device.
This allows customers to log in once, do their browsing and shopping on an e-commerce website, then leave for lunch with the website remembering what they were last shopping for. Convenience simplified.
So why are there concerns about cookies and privacy invasions?
Watching every click
However, large companies, such as Google or Facebook, hold a vast amount of personal information about millions of their users. This is especially true due to their widespread reputation, with Google holding almost 92% of the search engine market share worldwide, and Facebook hitting 2.7 billion monthly active users in October 2020.
Cookie technology allows for hassle-free usage of their sites, as with most other contemporary sites as well. But with every user offering their information up for grabs, it isn’t far-fetched to assume mega corporations would wrangle that information for their own purposes.
Google’s advertising services work through user preference modelling, showing adverts tailored to the user’s browsing history, page views, and clicking history. A person who had recently searched “jeans for sale” would be more likely to buy a set of jeans than, say, a person who had recently searched “blue jeans”. This sort of data is invaluable to businesses and mega corporations, who can spend more of their time marketing their products to consumers that have more of a chance to buy them, than mass-advertising to a group of people that may not be interested at all.
As expected, Google’s ad-powers increases the effectiveness of advertisements.
Shadows in every keystroke
Personalised tracking can become concerning, and downright creepy, for some users. The more advertisers know about a person, the more they can assume about their buying preferences. On social media apps such as TikTok or Instagram, biographical information such as age, gender, location, or relationship status are nothing short of gold mines.
Advertising being everywhere online and offline, within billboards and smartphones, people have gotten pretty good at ignoring it. This is also why ‘retargeting advertisements’ exist. The average person sees about 5,000 advertisements a day, and retargeting advertisements work by bringing the same type of advertisement across devices, to address visitors that leave a website without making a purchase.
This practice is also tied with how a user uses their online device. "If you tend to do your buying while sitting in bed with a tablet, that’s the device to which a 'buy' message is sent," Peter Cloutier, the chief marketing officer at Catapult, a conversion marketing agency says. "If you tend to do your longer content reading on your desktop, that’s the device that will get the 'learn more' invitation." This can be unnerving for some people, who wish to be left in peace when they scroll their favorite websites without an advertisement targeting their recent searches.
But what can be done?
A lot, really. Third-party tracking cookies can be easily disabled on most contemporary browsers, such as Chrome or Firefox. Some critics pan these “opt-out” functions, calling them out for automatic data gathering and plausible deniability for corporations that want to keep taking user data and express their efforts to allow users to turn it off; to have their cake and eat it too. Because of this, search engines such as DuckDuckGo are popular because the browser does not begin to collect or share personal information until a user “opts in”, or allows it.
Besides that, browser plugins such as Privacy Badger or adblockers are a staple in most modern technology users, enforcing Do Not Track requests and stopping malicious, harmful, or annoying pop-up advertisements. For the less technologically savvy or those in a hurry, it is easier than ever to open an incognito tab, which are set up to prevent any information, including browsing history, from being saved or transmitted.
Just about every site asks you to accept cookies. But nobody really knows what mega corporations do with the information that they gather. There are instances where targeted advertisements are only done to a certain demographic, such as “outdoor lovers” or “expecting parents”, so the invasion of privacy is only skin deep.
There are options to stop trackers, such as the Do Not Track (DNT) browser setting, which almost 75 million Americans have turned on, along with many other people worldwide. However, with no law requiring websites to respect a user’s Do Not Track signals, the vast majority of sites can choose to simply ignore them.
“Cookies by themselves pose no threat to the average person,” says Oliver Emberton, founder of web intelligence company Silktide, “But the information that companies store about you (with or without cookies) is always a concern, and should be protected for good reason.”