Who is Tracking You Online?

Every click has the potential to be tracked and most of them are...

That’s easy—every mouse click a user makes has the potential to be tracked and most of them are. The subject is admittedly complicated, technical and can be a bit creepy. I’m going to try to demystify it. I’ll include a few links to non-technical descriptions of technical terms.

As one example, how do the advertisers know to place ads for products you have just been looking at? The technical answer is “cookies,” a term that’s often seen because law requires that websites notify users they are placing cookies in their web browsers. Not all cookies are the same and users only find how much data cookies are collecting if they read the privacy statements before clicking Accept. Most of us don’t, so that’s one place to start.

Tracking is how ads are personalized to your interests. For example, a cookie can show the user was looking at patio furniture. The website can then place ads for patio furniture on other pages in their site. The data goes to advertising networks who can then serve ads to that particular computer for that particular product. No personal data required. The upside is that the viewer gets ads about products of interest, not random things he’s not in the market for.

Other examples abound. Some services, weather for example, can’t function without knowing your location. Publishers of all kinds review data about which pieces of content are most popular just like ecommerce sites review which products are most viewed by their audience. The advertisers and publishers are much too busy to try to connect a single user “view” to a named user, which is not straightforward. The weather services just do what’s easiest—they ask the user.

That’s a long way of saying that most of the tracking happening on the web is not associated with an email address, a name, or any data more personal than the computer’s internet address. That’s a unique numerical identifier that looks something like xxx.xx.xxx.x. It’s also a way of saying that digital marketers like me couldn’t do their jobs without anonymous user data. However, if the user is signed onto an account with the site, the tracking data can be linked with the personal data held by the site.

Now for the hard part: can you stop sites from tracking your movements? The straight answer is that you really cannot and still enjoy the benefits of the web.

All browsers have settings that give you some control over tracking cookies. Look for them under Privacy. Firefox, for example, offers settings that block third-party cookies, ones that are set by an advertising service, not the site you are visiting. The Standard setting blocks tracking only in Private Windows, used so browsing history will not be saved. The next option is called Strict. It blocks all known trackers and Firefox says, “may cause some sites to break.” That’s a nice way of saying the sites won’t let you in. Finally, it offers a Custom setting, allowing the user to block tracking on individual sites. Of course, you probably won’t be able to use those sites, but you will be able to use the rest of the web—and you’ll be tracked there.

Yes, it’s just that cut and dried. You have to accept anonymous tracking if you are going to take full advantage of the internet. Tracking is necessary to make many functions work. It is essential to advertising that is necessary to keep sites free.

The antidote is allowing customers to control how much personal data sites collect and save. The law that forces sites to divulge that information is European but most large companies abide by its regulations in order to do business in the European Union. You will find information about data and about removing it in the site’s privacy policy. There should be a link to the privacy policy at the bottom of the home page or on the About Us page.

There are some different issues that affect the mobile web. I’ll follow up with a post about that. I’ll include more specific recommendations about what users can do, depending on their level of concern about being tracked.

CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.