Are you a criminal? No?
Do you mind if I set up a few CCTV cameras inside your house? Yes?
Then, my friend, we are in the perfect place to have a little conversation, that means you value your privacy and want it to be respected!
Ladies, Gentleman and Robots, I welcome you to the arena of the Internet, where people are collecting massive amount of data about everything you do online. What you search, what you are interested in, what you buy, what you don’t buy, what you study, your sleeping habits, your shopping habits, your cultural influences, your favorite genre (of music, porn and movies and everything), and the quantum spin of all your elementary particles (this was a joke if it’s not clear)
What is Internet Privacy?
Do you remember visiting amazon, looked for a laptops a little too much, and the next day, every website you visit shows you the laptop you’re interested in? Received mails containing discount coupons to that laptop or even Messages?
If you remember, you were subject to user tracking and targeted advertisement. Implications? Pretty bad. The popular show ADAM Ruins everything has done a great job parodying matrix and telling how deep Google and Facebook tracks them, taking away their privacy, all for just making 1$ a month per user or even less. In this article, I am going to discuss how easily can a user be tracked and reduces !
Why is tracking bad for you?
Well, first, when I asked you if you let me install a CCTV in your home, you said no! It’s because we all deserve and value privacy. And bringing the same analogy online, you deserve privacy online.
By tracking users, and profiling them, companies are doing harm in several levels. let’s forget about targeted ads and privacy for a moment, and focus on Google search. If you are a snake lover and read a lot on snakes, and Google “Python”, you’ll see results containing Python (snake), and if you happen to be interested in computers, your results will return Python (Programming Language).
This kind of “See what you care about” is more bad than good. It restricts you within a bubble. Say, you are a supporter of Republicans, you like Republican posts and your Facebook feed will look pro republican. And if you are pro democratic, your feed will reflect the same. It puts you within a bubble of like-minded people and distorts the reality for you. Both sides will think that most people in social media is on their side.
Maybe you think Feminism is bad, you’ll see a lot of anti feminist posts, and pro feminist people will see to pro feminist posts. This, again, forms a bubble, and it’s hard to see the unbiased image. Likewise, in search results, your history dictates the content you’re being shown. Which means, you’re less likely to be recommended Charlie Puth if you mostly listen to Slash! It’s good from one POV, but from another, you are confined within a bubble, and the world of your own view is expanded and the outside world remains pretty inaccessible. This is bad for you, for me and for the community.
Targeted Advertisement – What is it?
Targeted ads are perhaps the most widely used application of user tracking. You spend a significant amount of your day on the internet, and everything from what you search for to what you shop is tracked and profiled. And depending on that information, they serve you ads. There are a lot of variables that are considered, and different people may be shown different ads for the same product!
Let’s say you searched for Laptops in Amazon extensively, read reviews and all. This is a strong indicator that you will buy a laptop. Then, from your Facebook feed to various websites, you will be shown a lot of ads that will try to sell you laptops! This is not bad, but it gets wicked.
The Ugly side of targeted ads
We humans are predictable. Very predictable. Due to evolutionary traits, we have certain biases. Like competitive spirit, game theory, and so on. Now, many companies use these traits to exploit us and make a sell for their benefit. All sorts of ads do that, but targeted ads do that in an unprecedented level.
Targeted ads make such accurate advertisements, that you are bound to fall for it, because they’re leveraging the weaknesses in our subconscious.
Let’s say, for example, paid online courses. In his Ph.D thesis, Derek Muller has conducted a study test the impact of video education and he found no significant improvement in most video courses. Your accuracy doesn’t improve, rather it just improves confidence. Before, you’d say, “I think maybe, 2+2=5“, Now, you’d say, “2+2=5, I know it!”
You see, this means most online courses aren’t selling an effective product or service (and they know it), but they’re good at pumping confidence. That means it can be marketed perfectly, and it will get rave reviews! This makes profit over content, emotion over facts and presentation over knowledge.
Furthermore, it puts a lot of control in the ad network’s hand. The network can control which product will be shown to whom, that means it can charge more money to make a sale. If it doesn’t like a company, it can refuse to put an ad, and that can have a huge impact. This also means, the networks can use their ad network as a leverage!
Just how much can they track?
If you’re so inclined to know that, Google tracks everything. Which apps you use, when you make a call, when you visit a web page (right now, Google knows that you’re reading this article, even if you didn’t come from google if you’re logged in).
And Facebook also tracks pretty much everything. Facebook can also track your activity on the internet! It can read which site did you stay on, which article did you read. Though Facebook’s hold isn’t that deep as of Google’s, but when it comes to profiling, it is still extensive. It has access to your mood, what you like and dislike, who you follow, who you talk to, what you talk about, how you look like. Facebook knows all these information which even Google doesn’t have.
And after they’ve done tracking, they analyze the data to build a detailed profile of yours, and this profile helps them serve ads, ads which work, and which don’t work. Then they will serve you ads which work, and reduce ads which don’t work.
How does the tracking work?
Here comes the technical part. So, you want to know how this tracking thing work? Well, tracking happens over cookies. Whenever your browser requests any information, the server may set a cookie, and that cookie will be sent with every request to that server. Through this cookie, the server can keep track of you. But it’s not just cookies, there’s another secret ingredient to the mix.
For example, I can set a cookie that says “SUSPECT 1” to your browser, then whenever you connect to this site, your browser will send a “SUSPECT 1” cookie to this server. I can track in which page you are in just by using that cookie. But it works only within this site. If you are in mygov.in, I can’t know your presence. But as it seems, there’s a trick!
If you click any link on any web page, the target page receives the information about which page you came from. Say, you are on iamsohan.in and through a link, you go to google.com, in that case, Google, through HTTP REFERER header, knows that you came from iamsohan.in
So, since Google will receive both the origin url, and your identifying cookie, Google (or any other service) will receive the tracking information. But how can google get their script on my site?
TL;DR: Through HTTP REFER, they receive the originating URL. Through COOKIEs, they receive identification. Using both of them, they can tell, which website you were in!
DEMONSTRATION of User Tracking
Look at this innocent image. Does it look like much? You can download it, run an antivirus through it, and anything under the sun. But this image, right here, can track you. You are on this page. Right now! and you’ve seen this page. And this image has already tracked you.
Lucky for you, I have added a way to view this fact. Click here to view the Tracking Report Now, you might think that what’s a big deal to track users on my site, right?
Wrong. I can track you wherever you go. https://jsfiddle.net/mkjnfu8v/ this is a jsFiddle, where I can write content on their site. I have just added that image, and boom! You can be tracked and linked. If you create a separate Fiddle or include the code in your site, things will make no difference. Go, give it a try, you can remove the link to stop getting tracked by me. But good luck escaping Google!
You can also go to TryIt Editor by W3Schools and write this code:
And as soon as you can see that image. You are being tracked.
What’s worse? Look at the following code:
Since I didn’t collect any other information, like your name, age, sex, or anything, I can’t make any meaningful prediction with this info (and I don’t have any intentions either). But sites like Google and Facebook can. They have all information about you.
But how they put their content in third-party websites?
They won’t. Site owners do! Have you seen any trust seals? There are many sites, which receive “trust seal” or other “seal” for free. This is a sneaky way to put an image. But who said there has to be an image? I didn’t?
Google can track you via their awesome Google Fonts, where websites can use high quality fonts served from CDNs, also jQuery, bootstrap, react, vue, all of them are usually served from CDNs, and all of them receive statistics about you.
And Google analytics. This is the monster. Google analytics is a fantastic piece of work. They give it for free, (competitors charge upwards of $100/yr)
Furthermore, if a site adds Google Maps, Facebook like/share button, etc. Just their presence can send your tracking information. User doesn’t have to click. Just loading a site, just about any site, whether you use Google or not. Android or Apple, your presence is felt. If you use Google, your information is anonymous, else your information is identifiable. Either way, their ad serving abilities, and abilities to manipulate you doesn’t change significantly.
What can we do?
Also, with the following steps, you can stop getting profiled easily.
- Switch over to DuckduckGo. Use DDG primarily and it will enough, if you don’t find something on DDG, switch to Google. I swear, 99% of my searches happen over DDG, in case I can’t find something, I can use Google. DDG is a Search Engine that respects your privacy!
- Disable third-party cookies! In Firefox, this can be done by turning on Tracking Protection to always! I don’t use other browsers extensively. I can let them track 0.5% of my information. This way, your privacy will be little bit safer!
- Visit myactivity.google.com regularly and keep deleting your info available to google every 7-30 days. (they won’t rebuild your profile daily so). They are legally bound that they can’t use that information for tracking you!
- Understand that, whatever you do online, most of it is visible to companies, and don’t use the internet unless you have to! And your online life isn’t Private. Online Privacy is a Joke. (see, Google is great, but I can’t let them have my info for eternity, it might get evil someday in future)
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Also you might be interested in 5 Recent technological advances that gives us a hint of Future of technology.
Thanks for reading