Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.
This week there was news of a movement to create a "do not track" registry for the internet, much like the "do not call" registry.
Yep, big brother may not be tracking you, but it's likely that Madison Avenue is.
Most people don't realize how much their online activities are being tracked by retailers and advertisers. Most don't think about it, and those that do typically have a serious and often paranoid misconception about exactly what's happening.
For example a retail store might place your customer number in a cookie on your machine so that the next time you visit the site automatically receives that cookie and knows who you are.
Advertisers can also place so-called "third party" cookies on your machine. Since the same advertiser may be displaying ads on thousands of websites they can track where you go across those sites, even the sites you've never been to before.
So here comes the paranoia: "Oh my God, you mean advertisers are tracking ME?"
Well, yes ... but no.
They're likely not interested in you as a specific individual. There are simply too many people for them to bother tracking anyone specifically. Advertisers are interested in crowds of people, and they collect or "aggregate" the data to see what trends those crowds are following. For example, if half of the people that visit Joe's on-line book store also visit Mary's on-line grocer, that's very interesting data that might be used to tailor specific or more relevant offers to that crowd.
If you're one of the people in that crowd ... well, your identity is likely just lost in the noise.
Amazon.com does this kind of thing within their store all the time. They track what you've purchased and even what you've just looked at, so as to make suggestions of other merchandise that might appeal to you.
Most advertiser tracking is really not much more than the same thing, only with less accuracy, applied to larger groups of people, and across a broader range of sites. Sites may not know who you are, but they may be able to better target what they offer you based on the characteristics of the kinds of crowds you appear via tracking to belong to.
Yes, you can disable cookies, but then a bunch of sites stop working completely. You can disable the third party cookies in most browsers if you like, but there are apparently ways around this that allow the same kinds of information to still be collected.
This isn't to say we shouldn't be watchful, we should. This type of tracking data could be abused. That's one reason I actually do business on-line with a handful of companies that I trust.
But in the long run, with a little bit of common sense, I'm just not that concerned.
I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11964 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.
Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.
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