The Truth About Data Mining: How Online Trackers Gather Your Info and What They See

Companies like Google and Facebook use cookies to track users across multiple websites over an undisclosed amount of time.

Companies like Google and Facebook use cookies to track users across multiple websites over an undisclosed amount of time. (Photo: Ksayer1/Flickr)

Targeted ads have become a way of life. When you search for an airline flight, online snippets keep track of what you looked for and use this information to serve you catered ads. The collected data can be used to determine your ticket prices, decide which ads to show you in the future, and even go as far as change how you feel about yourself.

There are many companies whose sole purpose is to gather and trade people’s information. Your age, gender, income, diet, weight, browsing habits, allergies, and job title are all considered succulent snippets of data, and companies use this to help convince you to buy their merchandise…or worse.

It’s called targeted advertising, and it’s a side of the Internet so new there aren’t any regulations to control it.

Below we’ll talk about the kind of information these companies can see, and how they can use it to both empty your wallet and further their own agenda.

It All Starts with a Cookie

Companies like Google and Facebook use cookies to track users across multiple websites over an undisclosed amount of time. When a person clicks on one site and then moves on to another, the cookie embedded in the first site keeps track of that user’s searches, thereby building up a repository of information over time.

What’s even more alarming is how advertisers have begun combining this data with your social media accounts to create an astoundingly accurate—and incredibly scary—portrait of who you are.

Over the last few years, advertisers have been hoovering social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram to learn more about our interests, our likes/dislikes, and the types of activity we enjoy. They’re even able to use social media profiles to access information on your friends and family. (More on this later.)

There was a story a few years ago about a man in Minnesota who got upset at Target because they were sending his teenage daughter coupons for baby clothes. Irate, the father called the company to complain. Little did he know his daughter actually was pregnant, and the customer tracking technology Target employed was so precise it was able to predict an early pregnancy simply based on the items his daughter was searching for online.

This kind of invasive technology goes beyond just ousting someone’s deep, dark secrets; companies can harness this data to influence your purchasing habits, alter your opinions, and possibly even use you to further their careers.

Case in point below.

Fill Out This Survey and Hand Over Your Privacy

Politicians combing through user data to aid their campaigns isn’t new, but the extent to which user tracking influenced this current US presidential run is shocking. Former Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz paid a third party company millions to gather psychological data on US citizens in order to help him win votes.

The information was collected under the guise of a massive online survey offered to random, unknowing Facebook users. Most respondents had no idea what the survey was for, much less that it would be used as part of a political campaign.

By using what is known as the OCEAN scale (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), a data mining company could interpret the answers to see which topics people are interested in based on their geographic location. This would allow Cruz to target demographics much more efficiently, and therefore win more votes.

Some people may see this as a catch-22: On the one hand, consumers have more power than ever to dictate which issues politicians should focus on, but on the other they have absolutely no control over how this information is used.

Scary Ways Trackers Gather Your Private Info

While data mining companies don’t keep track of names, they do assign people an individual ID number. The techniques and extent to which these companies are able to track are unclear, but there are a few known methods:

  • Seeding: This method usually involves a survey requesting access to a specific social media profile in order for a chance to win a prize. As soon as you grant the survey access, you immediately become a seeder. Embedded trackers in the survey will download every bit of data about your friends: their name, age, gender, likes, dislikes, etc., which they can then use to offer them the same survey.

It’s an easy way to grow a user profile, and it gives an eerily accurate portrait of individual personalities, which companies will pay lots of money for.

  • Canvas fingerprinting: This method lets websites track users by drawing an invisible image on the sites you visit. How your computer responds to this image allows the profiler to ascertain your browser, OS, software, and a host of other data. This combination of information will create a unique profile of you, which can be used to track you around the Internet.

Ever heard the phrase “The web never forgets”? This is why. By analyzing your browser history, companies can predict schemes and target ads they believe you’ll be interested in. The more you search, the more accurate their ads become.

  • Cookie syncing: When a user visits a site with an advertiser’s cookie embedded, it makes a request to other sites to share information. Once two or more trackers sync cookies, they’re able to exchange specific user data between their individual servers, enabling them to paint a much more accurate picture of who you are and what you may be interested in.

Cookie syncing has become so accurate it’s now able to link two separate ID numbers to the same user, meaning trackers can now link your mobile phone to your desktop computer, creating even more opportunities to exploit your info.

How You Can Protect Your Identity

Unfortunately, until sufficient legislation is passed there is very little you can do to change how trackers collect data. However, there are steps you can take to help prevent these companies from acquiring your information.

Changing your browser’s individual cookie policy to block outside sources, disabling Flash on your computer, installing Chrome anti-tracking browser extensions like uBlock Origin, and using a VPN can all help keep your identity hidden while protecting your information.

Arthur Baxter is an Operations Network Analyst at ExpressVPN, a leading privacy advocate whose core mission is to make it easy for everyone to use the Internet with security, privacy, and freedom. They offer 100+ VPN server locations in 78 countries. They regularly write about internet security and privacy at the ExpressVPN blog.

The Truth About Data Mining: How Online Trackers Gather Your Info and What They See