Despite its relative normalcy and acceptance in today’s tech-obsessed culture, the idea of constant surveillance can be off-putting to many.
In the same way that people change their behaviour once a camera is directed on them, so too does our online behaviour change when we know we’re being tracked.
For the most part, tracking your activity is far less sinister than it may initially sound. Tracking through cookies and user accounts is generally in place to enhance the user experience. However, this web personalisation is also there for advertisers to target you with content based on your preferences. You often see this on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which will feature ads based on things like your recent Google searches.
What are internet cookies and how do they work?
At the height of internet paranoia in the year 2000, internet cookies generated lots of controversy relating to privacy.
With the sinister overtones that come with the words “online tracking”, people were – and still are – reluctant to share their information online. Though a proper definition of what cookies are exactly can help to dispel some of these reservations.
A previously-held misconception (though maybe it’s still held by some) is that cookies can act on their own accord, collecting all of your personal information from your device. This is far from the truth, as cookies only allow websites to retrieve information from your device that they have stored there themselves.
Websites place these cookies – basically unique text-based user IDs that are generated for each new site visitor – onto your device’s hard disk and access these cookies every time you visit the site again.
The sweet taste of cookies
If you return to a site which has previously stored cookies on your device, your browser will send that site your unique user ID, also known as a name-value pair, with your previously-stored information.
By doing so, sites can piece together somewhat accurate profiles of its users and create greater user experiences based on this information.
This tracking by cookies not only allows sites to keep track of the number of visitors they receive, but to also use these profiles to customise their site based on each user’s personal preferences. With cookies, users can have relevant information, content, and features such as weather forecasts available to them.
Online retail sites also benefit from cookies, as they allow the site to monitor everything which a potential customer chooses to buy – or “add to cart” – and keeps the process relatively simple.
The bitter taste of web tracking
Machines that are in public spaces, like a work office or a library, will have multiple different cookies stored on it. If you’re not careful with your personal information and do not properly log out of accounts on shared computers, there is a possibility someone can use the cookies left on that machine to log in and use your account.
Cookies also pave the way for telemarketing and junk mail, as sites you have registered with or bought from can sell your information to third party companies with similar products you may be interested in. With your information stored in their database, this allows sites to be more accurate in their targeting.
If the idea of tracking feels a little too totalitarian to you, the option to disable cookies is available. By simply going into your browser’s privacy settings and checking the box beside the “Send a Do Not Track Request” option, you can add an extra step between your browser and a site in giving you cookies. However, this is up to the discretion of the site and may not be followed.
By erasing cookies, sites which you’ve previous visited will register you as a new user rather than a repeat consumer, wiping the slate clean of your previously stored preferences. Sites often try to combat this by allowing users to register through a username and password, while many use a central database to store information.
A guaranteed method is using the privacy or Incognito mode that your browser has to offer. This is more effective in stopping any cookies being saved on your device.
Cookies and Fingerprinting
Tracking across different websites can vary significantly. In a study by Princeton university, it was found that government, university, and non-profit sites used the least amount of tracking, with the reason being their amplitude of external funding sources.
On the other hand, the study found that editorial-based sites like news and culture sites use the most tracking as they often provide readers with free content. As a result of this lack of funding, they use higher levels of targeted advertising to generate revenue from page views.
While cookies are a simple way for sites to track their users online, the disadvantage for these sites is that they can be seen and deleted, removing all traces of the user ID along with tracking history.
To combat this, some sites have employed the use of “fingerprinting”, which gathers information that is already shared by web browsers, including screen resolution, time zones, plugins, and even fonts.
Putting this sort of information together allows for companies to recognise you when you come back, based entirely on the behaviour of your device, rather than cookies.
Tools such as Panopticlick are available to see how well-protected you are against online tracking, although the results may be disheartening for those who are especially conscious about their privacy. As it turns out, those who’ve configured their browser settings to make themselves harder to track are actually easier to track as customisations make them more unique.
Clearing your browser’s history and cookies
Google is a major culprit in tracking and storing user information, storing everything from voice searches to location.
With information based on your searches, Google can create a profile of you (granted you are signed into your Google account) and therefore target you with more relevant ads. You can even access your previous voice searches and listen to the recordings.
It also keeps your location history in its Timeline, allowing you to see where you were at any time, all the way down to the hour. Linked to its Maps service, it even provides information on your mode of transport and distance between stops.
You can toggle with your ad settings here (so you can let Google know that you prefer Jazz over Classical Music) and choose whether you want to turn off Ads Personalisation, though it warns against this.
You can access your Voice & Audio recordings here and delete them by clicking on ‘Delete activity by’. The same applies for your Search History and your location settings, which differs in that you click on the cog button in the bottom right-hand corner to delete your history.
To stop any kind of tracking in Google, including YouTube viewing history, you can turn the tracking off through the Activity Controls page.