Facebook, Google, and the other Internet titans have ever more sophisticated and intrusive methods of mining your data, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The success of the consumer Internet can be attributed to a simple grand bargain. We’ve been encouraged to search the web, share our lives with friends, and take advantage of all sorts of other free services. In exchange, the Internet titans that provide these services, as well as hundreds of other lesser-known firms, have meticulously tracked our every move in order to bombard us with targeted advertising. Now, this grand bargain is being tested by new attitudes and technologies.
Consumers who were not long ago blithely dismissive of privacy issues are increasingly feeling that they’ve lost control over their personal information. Meanwhile, Internet companies, adtech firms, and data brokers continue to roll out new technologies to build ever more granular profiles of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of consumers. And with next generation of artificial intelligence poised to exploit our data in ways we can’t even imagine, the simple terms of the old agreement seem woefully inadequate.
In the early days of the Internet, we were led to believe that all this data would deliver us to a state of information nirvana. We were going to get new tools and better communications, access to all the information we could possibly need, and ads we actually wanted to receive. Who could possibly argue with that?
For a while, the predictions seemed to be coming true. But then privacy goalposts were (repeatedly) moved, companies were caught (accidentally) snooping on us, and hackers showed us just how easy it is to steal our personal information. Advertisers weren’t thrilled either, particularly when we adopted mobile phones and tablets. That’s because the cookies that track us on our computers don’t work very well on mobile devices. And with our online activity split among our various devices, each of us suddenly appeared to be two or three different people.
This wasn’t a bad thing for consumers, because mobile phones emit data that enable companies to learn new things about us, such as where we go, who we meet, places we shop, and other habits that help them recognize and then predict our long-term patterns.
But now, new cross-device technologies are enabling the advertising industry to combine all our information streams into a single comprehensive profile by linking each of us to our desktop, mobile phone, and iPad. Throw in wearable devices like a Fitbit, connected TVs, and the Internet of Things, and the concept of cross-device tracking expands to potentially include anything that gives off a signal.
The ad industry is drooling over this technology because it can follow and target us as we move through our daily routines, whether we are searching on our desktop, surfing on our iPad, or out on the town with our phone in hand.
There are two methods to track people across devices. The more precise technique is deterministic tracking, which links devices to a single user when that person logs into the same site from a desktop computer, phone, and tablet. This is the approach used by Internet giants like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple, all of which have enormous user bases that log into their mobile and desktop properties.
Most of the tech giants have similar policies and they all emphasize that they do not share personally identifiable information with third parties. Facebook, for example, uses our data to deliver ads within its walled garden but says it does not let outsiders export our information. Google says it only shares aggregated sets of anonymized data.