laptop with message about accepting website cookies
18 NOV

We're told about web tracking on a daily basis. It's not just the blogs and news articles we read that tell us about how websites track our every move and are constantly collecting information about our behavior. Every new site you visit brings up a query about which cookies you'd like to accept - there's a constant reminder.

There's the “accept all” button, which feels dubious but will allow you to access the web page in full. Then there's the other option, where you can toggle cookie preferences manually. That seems like a lot of work.

So what type of personal information is collected by sites and search engines? How is it used, and by whom? Let's take a dive into the fascinating world of online tracking and data collection.

What Personal Information is Collected By Web Tracking?

Websites you visit automatically collect two key pieces of data about you:

  • Your IP address
  • The web browser and operating system (OS) you're using

Most data collection is enabled by cookies. All sites use cookies, and often for good reason: sites can monitor web traffic on their web pages and see if visitors are engaging with their site or not. This helps them to create a better user experience. Without collecting information from cookies, web design would be years behind where it is now.

There are also third-party cookies. These are tracking cookies that follow you around other websites you visit, collecting information on your browsing habits, and reporting back to the party that placed the cookie.

We'll discuss third-party cookies and web beacons below. First, let's consider the basic personal information available to websites you visit: the IP address and the web browser/operating system. How does a site you visit use this personal information? Let's explain what the terms mean.

IP Address

Your IP (Internet Protocol) address is your computer's unique identifier when you use the internet - but that doesn't mean it's set in stone. If you move to a new town, your IP address will be different. Mobile devices' IP addresses change all the time.

A common question is “can you find an address from an IP address?” The answer is no. Not unless you're working directly with a local internet service provider. The IP address uses geolocation to identify your device as belonging to a local network. This means that websites you visit can identify generally where you are, but can't identify your home address or precise location.

So why do websites track this information?

  • It shows the site's owners where the majority of their visitors are coming from, e.g. a roofing service in Indianapolis would hope that most of its visitors were from within that region.
  • It can allow sites to set targeted advertisements for products or services that are popular in your area.
  • Tracking cookies can use this information to build up a profile of users in a certain geographical area. This is considered problematic by some observers (see below).

An IP address can be concealed by using a VPN (a virtual private network). Some internet users utilize these services to avoid targeted advertisements and data collection that they perceive as intrusive.

Web Browser and Operating System

The web browser you're using may seem irrelevant: why does a web page care if you're using Safari or Chrome? Do they plan to mock you for using Internet Explorer? It's closer to the truth than you might think: the web browser and OS you're using help every site you visit to form a picture of you as a customer.

It was reported in 2012 that the travel site Orbitz used targeted advertisements displaying more expensive rooms to Mac users than visitors using the Windows operating system. Data collection had shown that web traffic from Mac users typically led to pricier bookings, and so the site adjusted accordingly.

Using a visitor's web browser and operating system to create a consumer profile is relatively simple. The type of online tracking and data collection that can be performed by third-party tracking cookies can generate a far more sophisticated picture - let's get into it.

How are Third-Party Cookies Used for Web Tracking?

Third-party cookies are placed on web pages by parties other than the site's owner. They stick around on computers and mobile devices and provide long-term data tracking. So how are these cookies placed?

You know those social media buttons that turn up on websites you visit? Those buttons indicate that Facebook, Twitter, etc. have third-party cookies placed on that page. In the case of Google, it's even more interesting: a huge proportion of websites use Google Analytics to monitor visitor data. This is because it's an incredibly well-designed tool for helping sites understand their customers. The caveat is that because it's Google Analytics they're using, Google also receives information about all that web traffic.

Web beacons are another part of this online tracking system. Web beacons are placed on web pages to allow third parties to check if a user has engaged with a piece of content. This helps websites track what users show interest in and enables them to create targeted advertisements and creates a more detailed consumer profile.

Search Engines, Browsing Habits, and Social Data

Search engines are traditionally a great tool for online tracking and creating targeted advertisements and none more so than Google. This combined with the data collection provided by Google Analytics means that the search giant is the undisputed king of collecting information about users' browsing habits. However, over the past 10-15 years, an equally important type of data collection has emerged: social data.

Users post huge amounts of personal information to Facebook. Combined with the third-party cookies the social media giant uses for web tracking, it can create extremely detailed pictures of consumer types and behavior. Facebook is to social data what Google is to search and analytical data. Both companies have incredible leverage over businesses that want access to that data to better understand their users.

So why does this matter?

Web Tracking Using Third-Party Cookies: Good or Bad?

Combining personal information gleaned from geolocation, social media profiles, and search/behavioral tracking can enable marketers to create incredibly specific targeted advertisements. This can be beneficial, as it enables users to see products and services relevant to their needs. However, critics argue that it can also be used for “profiling” - generating consumer profiles of demographics or geographic areas like neighborhoods that can be reductive and harmful.

The reality is that online tracking has both positive and negative elements. It depends on the intent of whoever possesses the data. Collecting information is an integral part of understanding web traffic and optimizing user experience.

It's also important to note that personal information like search data is not the same as personal information that can be used as an identifier, such as your address, your phone number, or your credit card information.

Should I Protect Myself Against Online Tracking?

Data collection can roughly be divided into two categories: local data collection and big data collection.

  • Big Data” describes the massive amounts of information harvested by search engines and social media giants that can be modeled and interrogated to create a sophisticated profile of a consumer.
  • Local data collection refers to the cookies used by every site you visit to optimize web design and increase conversion rates.

If you're concerned about the implications of large-scale data tracking, you can opt to use a VPN or use browser extensions to keep track of third-party cookies. You can also adjust your preferences on any web page - this can allow smaller sites you visit to continue collecting information that is useful to them without triggering third-party web beacons or tracking cookies.

Online Tracking and Understanding Intent

When websites track users' journeys through their web pages, it's usually for internal purposes and to help understand web traffic. By contrast, the goal of data tracking by third parties tends to be to create a monetizable image of you as a consumer that can be sold to marketers. Understanding the varying purposes of cookies, web beacons, and web tracking services - and the intent of their creators - is essential for understanding how to protect and manage your personal information online.

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