Have you ever seen ads pop up on your sidebar while browsing the internet? Of course you have. The only people that haven’t are those currently living under a rock (with little to no wifi signal). You may have also heard of recent security scandals, where people have found sensitive information being collect by 3rd party companies. These two occurrences may have more in common than you may have thought. That’s why I’m here. The goal of this post is to shine some light on how your hobbies, interests and search patterns mysteriously return as ads on your browser.
Forget the gold, invest in data mines
Companies have used data mining techniques for years. The process of data mining starts by collecting raw information in a data warehouse, and then organizing this data for swift, efficient retrieval and interpretation. Just to put this into perspective, Wal-Mart logs and store over 20 million point of sale transactions each day. This gives them the ability to search through this information and develop marketing segmentation techniques, trend analysis and interactive marketing strategies for its customers.
But what does this have to do with browser security you ask? Well it looks like more and more companies are relying on data mining techniques for effective marketing. These companies are looking towards the internet for a large portion of the browsing habits and interests shown by a perspective customer. Where would these targeted consumers share way too much personal information for everybody to see? You’ve got it. Facebook.
With corporations relying more heavily on internet trends shown by consumers, 3rd party data collectors are paying more for access and storage of this data. Which means that Mark Zuckerberg is making a mean buck off the 500 million people who are willingly sharing their personal lives on Facebook. Think about it. Where else on the planet are marketers going to find the location, social trends, likes, and dislikes of that many people all in one place. Facebook is a veritable gold mine for everybody involved in data mining, and they’re starting to cash in.
How is my information tracked?
One way websites can track browsing data is through cookies. A cookie is an encrypted text file that is downloaded by your browser when you access a certain site. These text files execute various functions, usually to enhance usability of the site it relates to. However, cookies can be used for less savory purposes. If examined properly, these text files (that can also store information about user history) can be used to track traffic from across sites. This method of viewing browsing habits is technically another version of “Spyware”. However, there are many more malicious forms of Spyware that can be unwillingly acquired through downloading unsafe software. A good anti-virus program can help avoid malware, and is a must have in this day and age if you want your computer to remain safe.
Once 3rd party data miners gather information from consumers, they can provide marketers with fairly comprehensive data about their browsing habits. Some information that marketers are interested in, and have ease finding are: Clickstream Data – the web pages you’ve visited (usually gathered though cookies); Search Data – Things you’ve search on Google or Bing (if anybody still uses Bing); Purchase Data – Think Amazon is keeping your purchase history a secret? Think again; and Profile Data – Information you’ve willingly entered on to social media sites. Once a company has this information, they can build a list of target demographics and form a market segmentation strategy. Marketers then apply these methods and are able to attract consumer by applying ads that relate to customer interests/habits.
Marketing and 3rd Party Data Collectors have insisted that there is morality behind these methods of gather data. They spew out excuses on how “it will cut costs” and “send the right product to the right consumer faster”. But what they leave out, is that they do this at the expense of our privacy. In my opinion, we shouldn’t have to figure out that companies were tracking our every move on the internet. It should be their responsibility to blatantly tell users what they are getting in to (not hide it in their privacy policies, cause let’s face it, those are pretty dry). I believe it should be our right to sell our information if we so choose. Cause hey, who doesn’t like ads tailored exactly for them? But you know what I like more? Not having my browser track by God-knows-who.
Helping to prevent unwanted trackers
This video gives a brief overview of what I have explained in my post. It might help summarize my main points of why we need to protect our information, before I dive into how we can protect our information.
-Do not track apps: Certain browsers (such as Safari) have settings that you can turn on to send a “do not track” request to website. The only problem is: websites don’t have to comply. Google Chrome also has a number of anti-tracking apps available on the Chrome Store.
– Read Privacy Policies: I know, I know. Privacy Policies are boring. But hey, there is a reason that we have to accept them with each install, download, or visit to specific sites. If your internet privacy really matters to you, I’d give them a read.
– Be careful with public WiFi: Just imagine shouting at someone across a crowded room. Anyone in the vicinity could keep track of your conversation. Same goes for public wifi. A couple things to make sure of when using non-secure WiFi are: ‘HTTPS’ websites are usually encrypted, making browsing data harder to track; DO NOT visit websites with sensitive data (online shopping/banking); and be careful with your browsing habits you never know who could be watching.
– Deleting cookies: clearing out your ‘Cookie Cache’ is never a bad idea. They can collect on your browser and take up space, or they could double as spyware. I always clean mine out once a week just to be sure. You can clear you cache by visiting ‘History Options’ in most browsers or download a cleaning software, I recommend this one.
On Guard Online has a lot of helpful videos about remaining secure online. It breaks down how to stay safe while online shopping, using apps, and using public WiFi. Give it a look!