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Have you ever thought how different advertisements are served online to people based on their search criteria? What’s the science behind it? Let’s say you are searching for furniture online, how come the entire world of Web knows your behavior?

Being a techie myself, I was really curious to get an answer and started digging into the details. Luckily few of my mentors are big shots in the advertising industry and they had the answers.

The content that you search on the Web, may look as if it’s coming from one single Web page with text and graphics, however in reality it is assembled from multiple different channels, and these different sources can be a variety of different companies.

In fact there is:

  • A content which is “visible” to you.
  • And a content “invisible” to you, but “visible” to the companies purely for the purpose of tracking your behavior or patterns.”

The ads we see now-a-days are often the product of digital “stalking” as companies try to track our browsing patterns.

Understanding cookies

We all understand that cookies are small bits of text that are downloaded as you surf the web. Their purpose is to carry bits of useful information about your interaction with the website that sets them.

Cookies are harmless in the sense that they do not contain software programs, and so cannot install anything on a computer.

Generally they do not contain any information that would identify a person as such and contain a string of text or “unique identifier” which acts like a label. When a website sees the string of text it set in a cookie, it knows the browser is one it has seen before.

Cookies can be used for a variety of reasons:

– to help remember your preferences on a site
– to understand how you and other users are using the site

The cookies that appear to be harmful, are the ones which are used for managing the advertising you see on a website. This is the case when websites set a cookie from a separate advertising delivery company.

This cookie has the ability to record when and where you viewed an advertisement. The cookie then sends this information to it’s owner, who records this data and uses it to make sure you don’t see the same advertisement too many times.

If websites choose to pool some of the information this type of cookie collects as part of an ad network, the systems used by advertising delivery companies can create “segments” of browsers that display similar behaviours.

They will then use this to try to draw conclusions about what the people behind the browsers might be interested in: “vacations” or “sports gears” etc.

There is another technology that can follow you from site to site, tracking your actions, and compiling the details into a database, usually by a pseudo name or identifier. This way it knows when you come back, and it knows to look you up, and based on what it has profiled about you in the past, it will treat you accordingly and decide which advertisements to give you, sometimes how to personalize content to you, and so on.

Unfortunately, users really don’t know exactly what data they are collecting, or what they might use it for.

What is known is that data is collected, analyzed, and used to target us with relevant ads.

The worrying part is that it’s not just tracking, but using the data to do data mining and see what you can infer about that person’s behavior and their preferences.

We also have more to worry about than just the advertisers!

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