ArticlesIssuesThe PrivacyTheft Series

PrivacyTheft: Ad Tracking

Ad tracking is the process of collecting data in order to profile and/or target users with marketing materials, informational persuasion, or manipulation.

Advertisers and websites track users and collect their data using a variety of technology and techniques, such as cookies, tracking pixels, fingerprinting, tracking URLs, and a range of other sources. The goal of ad tracking is to collect as much personal information from users as possible, combine newly collected info with existing data to compile incredibly comprehensive profiles, and then sell access to the raw data or give companies the ability to target users based on attributes, behaviors, or predispositions. Advertisers can then serve ads or promote content for products, services, causes, political ideas or candidates, and more.

This article is part of our PrivacyTheft Series.

Each post takes a deep look into one of the ways that our digital world is taking our information without asking, and putting us at risk.

To put it another way, advertisers will pay to find specific people. Ad tech aims to put you on as many lists with as much detailed information as possible. Their goal is to sell your information and their access to you as many times and to as many companies as they can. This literally makes you the product.

What do you get out of all this? Essentially nothing. You may get some ads and content that is “personalized” or “relevant”, but you will get just as many, if not more, unwanted ads and content based on aspects of your life you didn’t want others to know about. Or you get ads based on inaccurate content that has been added to your profile via poor techniques and mistaken information.

All that information that’s collected might also get to shady companies or criminals via leaks or illegitimate transactions—you’ll never know until it’s too late.

To have more online privacy, your job is to avoid, block or prevent ad tracking as much as possible.

Types of Ad Tracking

This is how many websites and companies can track you as you browse the internet and continue to collect your information on any and most websites. This is done via ads themselves but can also be hidden on a webpage without you even noticing.

  • Cookies are a type of data stored on your device when you visit a website and are a common form of identifying a user. Cookies from the site you are visiting are known as first-party cookies and are commonly used to provide you with an enhanced and more convenient browsing experience by remembering who you are, the fact that you’ve logged in before, what you’ve bought before, search history, and other preferences.
  • Third-party cookies are similar to first-party cookies, but they come from sites other than the one you are visiting, and they follow you around as you bounce from site to site. For example, social media sites use third-party cookies all across the internet. Third-party cookies are mainly used to identify you, collect your data, and sell it to advertisers. In some cases, third-party cookies, if not deleted, allow websites and other companies to track your activity up to years after you visit a site.
  • Tracking pixels are snippets of code that allow third parties to track user behavior on a website. Pixels allow advertisers to gather a wealth of information about you, including what actions you take when you visit a site. They’re largely the reason why you think Facebook is listening to you or reading your thoughts (they aren’t). They use tracking pixels to follow your every move around the web for years, so they’re able to anticipate your wants and interests. 
  • The most common types of tracking pixels are retargeting pixels and conversion pixels. These allow advertisers to track ad impressions, sales conversions, and even when you’ve opened an email and where you were when it happened. Tracking pixels violate your privacy by gathering extensive data about you without your knowledge or permission, allowing any company or spammer to access your data without your consent.
  • Fingerprinting is a method of identification based on attributes of your hardware or software devices. Much like how police identify suspects based on their unique fingerprints, websites can collect specific information about your device, the browser type and version you’re using, your operating system, active plugins, installed fonts, timezone, language, and screen resolution—in an effort to uniquely identify you. 

One common use of fingerprinting is for cross-device tracking, allowing advertisers to know that you are the same person when you use your laptop, your mobile phone, or your tablet.

Fingerprinting works because there is quite a small chance that another individual matches your exact ‘fingerprint’, that is, the culmination of different data points collected by this method. In fact, according to Panopticlick, only 1 in 286,777 browsers will share the same fingerprint. Therefore, your unique browser fingerprint becomes a useful tool companies employ to track your behavior online. 

Personalization Isn’t Justification

The ad tech industry, the fine folks who have infested our technology with all these techniques to gather data about you without ever asking explicit consent, defend themselves in with two statements:

  1. Tracking enables personalization. The assumption here has some legitimacy, but is then delivered in a dosage that’s dangerous and with side effects that make the worst prescription drug commercial disclaimers seem short and innocuous. Sure fishermen like to see ads for fishing equipment, up to a point. But people with family members suffering from cancer don’t like cancer reminders (or spammers promising a cancer cure) following them around the internet.
  2. Targeted advertising enabled the ‘free internet’. This is the ultimate ends-justify-the-means dodge, and ignores the fact that the advertising industry prospered for decades before personalization. Many companies, like DuckDuckGo run profitable ad-based businesses without relying on any personalization even today.

Ultimately, the problem is that the ad tech industry has taken this simple premise to illogical extremes and weaponized it. They collect massive amounts of intricate personal data, including highly personal and revealing things such as your location data, the people you know, the searches you conduct, and much more to learn and assume deeply personal traits about you. 

They don’t want to know whether you like fishing, they want to know you can afford the most expensive rods, are a conservative who dislikes opera, have a son recovering from alcoholism, and are sometimes late on your alimony payments but visit whisky bars often until 2am. There is never enough data and they never stop collecting data.

In worst case scenarios, which have all played out millions of times, the data ad tracking collects about you is used for psychological or political manipulation, often leading to political disenfranchisement, self-censorship, or even harassment. 

This is why we recommend doing everything you can to stop ad tracking.

You Can Prevent Ad Tracking

There is a lot you can do to minimize how much websites and marketing companies can track you. It won’t stop all the tracking, but it will certainly stop the vast majority. And every bit of data they don’t have about you is a bit of data they can’t use against you.

A huge amount of tracking occurs through your browser so you can choose a browser that has added privacy preserving features (ideally those features are on by default). If you don’t want to change browsers, you can add extensions or plugins available to most browsers that will block ad tracking, fight fingerprinting, and limit other data sharing.

Location sharing is the source of a ton of dangerous data that can wind up in the wrong hands, so be stingy with location sharing permissions and settings.

Your devices themselves – computers, phones, tablets, devices, often have many settings that directly share your data UNLESS you change those settings to opt-out of the tracking. Similarly, many apps and services you use take data they gather in the normal course of your service and then sell that data without ever letting you know they’re doing so. All you can do to prevent this is be careful with manufacturers and companies you don’t know, and research the ones that you do – the largest and most well known companies are often extremely guilty of this.

Preventing tracking and preserving privacy comes down to education and action. You have to be aware of the problem – reading this article is a start- and then decide to protect yourself. Over time, add your voice to public outcries, which have forced many companies to adopt more ethical behaviors, and to the growing call for legislation which limits who can take your data, especially without telling you, and use it for purposes you did not pre-approve.

Privacy is possible.

Priiv is an iOS app that helps you manage your personal privacy and security. It helps people to live a safer life online and off. You can sign up to get a preview of our app here.

Original Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash, Edited by Josue Ledesma

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