The 411 on Tracking Cookies & Internet Privacy
Recently, there’s been a lot of controversy over tracking cookies and internet privacy in general. I’d like to shed some light on the whole situation:
For online media publishers, advertising’s the cash cow, the primary form of revenue. This is why just about every every website features some form of advertising. Now if you’ve ever taken a look at the ads themselves (probably inevitable), you probably noticed that advertisers are willing to pay quite a bit for targeted advertising… which is why it seems that the ads you see are tailored to your interests. To achieve this feat and to more effectively target advertisements, companies like Google have formed advertising content networks. These networks install little tracking cookies that log some of the websites you visit. When you visit a new website that is part of the same content network, the tracking cookie will cause an advertisement to appear that is target to websites you frequent that are apart of the same network.
Are these tracking cookies storing your username and/or passwords? No. There are other cookies created by your web browser most of the time that save this information.
Do the websites you are visiting have access to the information stored on the tracking cookie? No. The advertising content network has software that automatically analyzes the cookie and returns an advertisement within seconds (from the time you request a page to the time it has finished loading).
The advertisement networks, which are owned by companies like Google and Microsoft, may have access to the actual tracking cookie… but then do they really have much personally identifiable information? Let’s face it, Google already has all your emails on file if you use Gmail and uses that information in your emails to deliver advertisements. Your internet service provider is also tracking all the websites you visit and this list is linked to personally identifiable information like your name, address, social security number, etc. If the bad guys really wanted your information, they could get much more of it by infiltrating your ISP as opposed to running websites and learning that you just visited websiteXYZ.com
Now, the FTC announced that they would like to start a ‘Do Not Track List,’ similar to the ‘Do Not Call List,’ to disable sites from installing tracking cookies. For this to work however, the Feds (federal government) would have to install and regulate software on our computers that would essentially instruct each website we visit not to track us. There are a number of glaring issues with this “solution.” The fundamental one is pretty obvious– do we really trust the federal government to install software on our systems? My thoughts: have you seen the size of our country’s debt? If you ask me, the federal government could make a pretty penny selling information about websites we visit to advertisers. Also, can we be sure that their program is free from vulnerabilities? Nope, meaning it’d most likely become another source of viruses for our computers.
Is the idea of tracking cookies anything new? Absolutely not. Heck the television industry practically tracks your every move too! Exhibit A: the fact that the majority of companies are already actively monitoring your preferences (i.e. which demographics watch which TV shows). So, if I was an advertiser, I’d have the ability to tell a network to air my ad while shows that primarily attract 18-35 year are on. Or, I could request that my ad, which might target video gamers, run from 8-12 PM or while Chuck on NBC is playing. With all the information they have available about their audience, chances are I would get a pretty targeted advertisement. How is this different from tracking cookies?
A recent study showed that 10% of web users have some sort of adblock technology installed on their system. Out of the remaining 90%, 78% ignored most of the advertisements they see. Another study showed that people reacted to web advertising less than print, radio, and TV advertisements. Most modern web browsers have a type of privacy mode which will delete all cookies after your session. Also, regardless of your browser, you’re always able to delete cookies, cache, and saved browsing data. (Editor’s Note: you may want to consult your browser’s help page for directions on how to do this.)
Now that you’ve heard my thoughts, I’m interested to hear yours. Be sure to share ‘em below.