When you search the web your information is circulated through a growing network of websites, online advertisers, and middlemen — tracking companies, data analyzing agencies, data brokers, and advertising networks. The end goal of this information sharing is targeted online advertising; ads are custom made for the online user.
This is great for online advertising as companies are able to purchase and display sophisticated ads that are more relevant to the viewer. For online users, from young students commenting on movies and music on their social network pages to adults searching for medical information, this poses a threat to privacy. Awareness of what is going on behind the scenes, the behavioral tracking and collection and exchange of data, is essential; individuals can then make more informed decisions about their navigations through the world of online media.
Internet Cookies and Consumer Privacy
Online web advertising has been evolving over the past few years. A few years ago, search engines such as Google relied on ads being linked to keywords and phrases contained within the content of a website. After that, interest-based ads have been used as well. Where do advertisers get the data for targeted online ads?
From the navigations of the consumer. What happens is when an online user goes to a website, internet cookies and now even more advanced tracking files and programs known as beacons are downloaded onto the computer of the user. These trackers then collect data based on what the user browses, what is typed into the computer, what is clicked on, and even where the mouse is on the screen. All data is anonymous; it is given a number code, not the actual name of the individual. Information, some exact and some that is assumed, such as age, financial status, health history, and interests, are gathered, analyzed, and then exchanged. This tracking technology is now capable of transferring data in real time.
The New Order of Targeted Online Advertising
Why are major websites allowing internet cookies to be downloaded onto the computers of their users? Isn't this a huge infringement on consumer privacy and rights? According to the Wall Street Journal article by Julia Angwin, “The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” the top 50 American websites installed, on average, 64 internet cookies, beacons, or other forms of tracking technology.
In many cases the websites are not aware that users are being bombarded with tracking files. In other cases the website is aware and may even be financially compensated for distributing these files. The tracking companies and advertisers who are buying and selling the data collections of course are aware.
How is it possible that targeted online advertising has gotten to this level with so little knowledge on the part of the consumer? How is this legal? At this point this information collection and circulation, which is known as behavioral tracking, is very new. Many of the data agencies themselves are new, forming to fulfill the growing demand for consumer data. Also the tracking technology is still evolving.
The FTC has expressed issue with the increasingly invasive practices that are being used for targeted online advertising.
Why Understanding Behavioral Tracking Is Important
For some people whether advertisers have data on their music preferences and zip code does not matter. As long as the information is anonymous, what difference does it make? This is true to a point. The danger lies in the lack of boundaries. Information such as financial status, health problems, and even personal interests and preferences can be incredibly private.
As long as online users are not aware of what is going on targeted online advertising may continue to evolve. The government has expressed concern, but as long as this is not a public issue it may remain a non issue until it is out of control. A discussion on consumer privacy and the pros and cons of more evolved online ads that involves the advertising companies, advertisers, data collection companies, websites, and the consumer would benefit everyone.
GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation)
GDPR is one of the most critical change in data protection regulation in 20 years. You can read more about it on wikipedia here. This protects and empowers all of europe's citizens data privacy.
It was approved in Europe parliament on 14 April 2016 and enforced on 25 May 2018. As per it, any website that has visitors from any european country, it is mandatory for them to show a GDPR notice to its viewers. Users must be shown a notice immediately as soon as they visit a website that there data is being stored in cookies. If a user does not want that to happen, he/she can close the website.
Meanwhile, what individuals can do is be aware of what is going on, understand that consumer privacy is being compromised, choose to activate the private mode / incognito mode while browsing, and delete internet cookies after surfing the web.