“Accept cookies to continue.” If this sounds familiar and you’ve always wondered what exactly you’re agreeing to, then keep reading. In an online age of conspiracy theories, Edward Snowden, and Instagram, our private lives have never been more public. Not to mention that oftentimes we are forced to agree to confusing terms and conditions in order to simply read a blog, access a webpage, or watch a video. But why are we being asked to accept these conditions and “cookies”, and who’s benefiting from all this information? Let’s read on.
What is data tracking?
Data tracking in its most basic sense is the process of gathering, identifying, and categorising individual data for the purposes of analysing it later on. This is not a new thing, in fact, nowadays, it has become common practice amongst most companies and websites in order to improve user experience and maximise earnings. There are even websites dedicated to offering data tracking packages to companies and can be tailored to their specific needs.
But how do they track your data?
There are a number of ways that companies collect user information. For example, a common way of doing that is through the use of “cookies”. The official name is the HTTP Cookie and these little bots are responsible for keeping track of your visits and activity whilst you are on the website. There are a number of different types of these “cookies” and, whilst the majority are there to help the user, such as the authentication cookies which store your login details so that you don’t have to type your password in again, there are others that are more sinister.
Third-party tracking cookies belong to websites you may not be aware of, and can follow where you are going and what you are doing online, whilst “zombie cookies” recreate themselves after being deleted. For example, imagine you open a clothing website, you start scrolling and are confronted with a tab asking you to “accept cookies”. You click on it and carry on browsing through endless pairs of leggings. But, essentially what you have just agreed to, is being tracked online, sometimes long after you have left the site.
Who wants this data?
This begs the question, then, of who wants your data and why is it important? After all, who would want to know if you opened an email or not, or how many times you have watched the same video on YouTube? The thing to remember is that companies don’t care what you like, it is more important to them to know why you like certain things and what prompts you to click on the things you do. Basically, if they can figure out which stick it is that will get you to move, then whatever carrot they put in front of you after that is no longer important.
Now, before you freak out, not every company is out to get you or is selling your information. Most companies simply track data in order to improve what they sell to customers and use it as another part of their marketing strategy. Basically, if they know you have a thing for fitness, then they will target you with more ads related to that area.
The point where it becomes dangerous and intrusive is when they use your online activity to build a very detailed profile on you and your traits, and manipulate this. For example, if you have a standard Gmail account, your internet history, YouTube history, location, and even gender are kept track of along with other details. So, if you are simply looking to buy a new bed for your dog online, why do companies really need to have so much information about you?
What are the risks of having your data tracked?
As with most things, what goes up, must come down, and the depth to which an individual’s digital footprint can be tracked is increasing at an alarming rate. The risks associated with this are vast and, unfortunately, most are perfectly legal, if slightly unethical. You see, in recent years, the internet has moved faster than the rule of law and, as a result, we do not know the full extent of how much corporations have gathered about us or what they are doing with this information. The online world has far fewer rules and regulations than the real world and, as such, there are numerous loopholes to be exploited.
Take for example Facebook, used by over 2.85 billion people worldwide, it is the most popular social networking platform to date and is capable of tracking users even after they deactivate their account and also those who have never opened a Facebook account at all. It was also a part of the scandal regarding Cambridge Analytica in 2018, when it was revealed that Facebook sold personal data to this company in order to help them build detailed user profiles to use during the Brexit campaign. In blunt terms, it was a form of data prostitution, they sold information to third-party companies for money and some people were manipulated into thinking a certain way.
This is not just dangerous, but also shows how little control people have over their personal information. As is common nowadays, data has become a currency of sorts, with numerous companies and high-profile organisations being held to ransom over the stealing of personal information for money. And yet, not once is the true owner of the information being asked if they want to sell this information or is offered money after it has been passed from one company to another. Not to mention that, given the amount of online data, it has now become easier to steal people’s identities and bank account information.
So, what can you do about it?
Right now, it is difficult to stem the flow of personal information that is being sold and passed between companies, but you can limit your digital footprint by turning off tracking on your email and internet activity. There are also websites and browser add-ons that let you surf the web in private and let you see exactly which companies are following you.
At this point, it is not realistic to assume that we can simply stop using the internet altogether, as many of us are required to be online for work and other purposes. However, it is important to be more aware of what you’re sharing and agreeing to in order to protect yourself. Perhaps, in the future, stricter laws will be imposed but, for now, keep an eye on those cookies.