Why tech giants don’t need to spy on you to know what you’re up to


Firms invest heavily in gathering user data and do so in a number of clever ways.

Firms invest heavily in gathering user data and do so in a number of clever ways.

But it gets far creepier. Your personal email inbox is also fair game for tech firms. In 2017, Google said it would no longer analyse email content for the purposes of advertising, but recent reports suggest that other large firms still do this. New tech also provides another data source, be it wearables, smart TVs, other in-home smart devices or the smartphone apps that we have come to love. These can gather data on how you use your smart devices, who you contact, what you watch and for how long, other devices on your home network, or where you go.

It’s not just individual sites or devices that monitor your online behaviour. A massive ecosystem of advertisers and supporting companies is dedicated to tracking your activity across the internet. Sites commonly record what pages you look at by saving a small file called a “cookie” to your browser. And your activity across different sites can be matched by looking at your browser’s “fingerprint”, a profile made up of details such as your screen size, the version of the browser you’re using and what plug-in tools you have downloaded to use with it. Then, when you visit another website, an ad firm that has built a profile of you based on your cookies and browser fingerprint can load a “third-party script” to display ads relevant to your profile.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, this tracking does not stop at online data. Tech firms are known to purchase data from financial organisations about user purchases in the real world to supplement their ad offerings. According to some reports, this includes information on income, types of places and restaurants frequented and even how many credit cards are present in their wallets. Opting out of this tracking and onward data sharing is incredibly difficult.

Even where you ask to opt out of this data gathering, your request might not be respected. An example is the uproar caused when it was discovered that Google tracks the location of Android users even when the location setting is turned off. Location data is one of the most useful for advertising and many firms, including Apple, Google and Facebook, track the location of individuals to use as input into their bespoke algorithms.

Putting the data together

To sum up with a simple example, imagine you have just started to think about where to go for your next holiday. You spend the morning visiting travel agents to discuss the latest deals and then visit your favourite restaurant, a popular Caribbean food chain, in the city. Excited about your potential trip, later that night you watch mostly TV shows on the tropics. The next day, your social media feed contains flight, hotel and tour ads with deals to Barbados.

This is a very real illustration of how data on your location, financial purchases, interests, and TV viewing history can be correlated and used to create personalised ads. While some might welcome holiday deals, it becomes much more worrying when we consider data gathering or ads targeting sensitive health issues, financial difficulties, or vulnerable people such as children.

The future of digital advertising is set to be as scary as it is intriguing. Even with new laws that try to protect people’s information, tech firms are constantly looking to push the boundaries of data gathering and algorithm design in ways that can feel invasive. It may yet be proven that some firms aren’t being honest with us about all the data they collect, but the stuff we know about is more than enough to build an alarmingly accurate picture of us.



Source link Technology

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