NBC Bay Area's Stephanie Chuang examines how companies are watching your every move when you surf the Internet.
Whether it’s checking email or online shopping, people are more connected than ever to the Internet. But if you don’t pay attention, there could be hundreds of companies tracking you from website to website.
For example, think of how many times you’ve searched for something online, then noticed ads for that product or related to it popping up on websites. Targeted ads are growing more popular as various websites and companies bank on getting more revenue from tailoring specific advertisements to consumers.
But how does it all work?
Imagine you walk into a store, only there’s not the one salesperson casually watching you – it’s 100 set of eyes keeping track of where you go, what you pick up and put down in the store, and remembering the data indefinitely. Except you have no idea, because those eyes are behind store walls.
That’s how Aleecia M. McDonald, Director of Privacy at Stanford Law, described the way companies track consumers online. She said there could be 100 different companies tracking a user’s activity from one page alone – and the consumer at home usually is completely unaware.
“If you visit one website, you have a whole bunch of other companies tracking you, as well, and then they’re tracking you on other websites, too, so they can continue to track you across the web,” McDonald described. “It’s like peekaboo, right? You have an entire world watching you and you just don’t know it.”
The latest problem, she added, was that companies are now working together to build a bigger-scale profile of consumers. “We even have the trackers working together to put one giant view to get as much sense of where you’ve been online as possible.”
That’s largely thanks to cookies, text files stored on a hard drive that help websites remember you, whether it’s your password or what’s in your shopping cart. McDonald described it as a unique sort of user ID, “in a lot of cases like your social security number, so that you can be re-identified again and again.”
That’s why some companies are investing more time into enhancing privacy controls on behalf of web users. Jim Brock, who leads privacy products at AVG Technologies, said his company has identified more than 1,200 companies that track users online. Brock said the company just updated a program, “PrivacyFix,” created specifically to help web users block unwanted tracking.
“We provide you with the ability to get rid of all the cookies immediately, if you want, then to block future tracking by those companies in your browser,” Brock said.
But some people may want some form of tracking. According to the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), which said it represents America’s largest media and marketing associations, more people like targeted ads than those who don’t. The DAA commissioned a Zogby Poll this year that showed nearly 70 percent of those surveyed wanted at least some targeted ads, compared to 16 percent who didn’t.
On its website, the DAA also said it offers the interactive ad industry’s most comprehensive solution: the Opt-Out Page, described as one site that allows users to stop targeted ads. Critics like McDonald said that’s misleading.
“It turns out what you’re opting out of isn’t data collection,” McDonald said. “It’s out of seeing targeted ads from those companies.”
She also said access to more personal data is at risk as companies become more sophisticated in the way they track. “There are companies that get paid to take the cookie that’s on your hard drive and figure out who you are, what your phone number is and how much you paid for your house.”
Brock added, “I think it is quite personal in terms of where I go every day, what my commute is, where my kids go to school.”
That’s not all. They question how the collected data, which exchanges hands among countless companies, could be used later. McDonald posed a question.
“Does the information that I like fast cars then go to my insurance company and I never even know that that happened?” she asked. “It’s like we’ve built Santa Claus. We’ve built this group that sees what you do online and is aware of what’s going on, your dreams and your hopes.”
Brock said there is a shift in new tracking technologies that involve “digital fingerprinting.”
“Looking at immutable characteristics of your browser to identify you over and over again,” he described. “The reason I really don’t like that is because it takes the choice out of my hands. I can delete my cookies, I can understand them, but I can’t change the fundamental fingerprint of my device.”
Just this week, talks broke down between the DAA and those working on the Do Not Track effort, a tool that’s supposed to build more access to privacy for consumers. Internet privacy advocates like McDonald and Brock both said it is time for web users at home to take control of their own data.
“You need to turn on Do Not Track to block ads, whatever you find is the right way, go change your preferences in your browser,” McDonald encouraged. “Right now it’s up to the users to stand up for themselves.”