Method 4: Third-Party Cookies

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There are a lot of ways that companies gather your data. One method, which I find really creepy, is third-party cookies.

Try searching for a “Hanes Red Men’s Sweatshirt” on Amazon. For the rest of the week, I bet you’ll see ads for that red sweatshirt all over the Internet. Why does this happen? How do other sites know what you looked at on Amazon? How do they know that you’re… you?

One word: cookies. And not the Christmas kind.

A cookie is a small piece of code that a company installs on your browser when you first visit their website. This cookie tags you as a unique visitor, allowing them to remember you next time. Whenever you visit this site again, whether it’s in 30 minutes or 30 days, they can customize the website content and load faster, giving you a more positive experience. If you’re shopping, this can make it easier for you to pick up where you left off and, hopefully, complete a purchase.9

What I’ve described above is actually called a “first-party cookie,” since the company that’s running the website is the same company that’s installing and using the cookie. (The company running the website is considered the first party and you, the user, are the second party.) For the most part, first-party cookies are considered pretty innocuous.

However, there is another kind of cookie — “third-party cookies” — that is much more troubling.

With third-party cookies, the company running the website actually shows you an ad or banner belonging to another company (the third party), which is usually an advertising firm or data collection agency. This third party installs its cookie on your browser, which allows them to recognize you whenever you visit this website again and — more creepily — whenever you visit any other website that has one of its ads or banners. For a large ad company, this could mean thousands of sites.10

In this way, third-party cookies are able to follow you around the Internet, gathering data about what you look at, what you’re interested in, and who you are. Wherever you go, they’ll show you ads for content you might be interested in, like a “Hanes Red Men’s Sweatshirt.” Even worse, they’ll use your browsing data to create a user profile, approximating your age, gender, location, occupation, interests, etc., so they can market to you even more effectively.11

Why don’t most Internet-users know about third-party cookies? Because, unfortunately, cookies don’t require consent. In the US, they’re installed without notifying users, giving very little transparency into where they were installed, what they’re learning about you, and how they’re using your data. (In the UK, however, websites are required to inform users about their use of cookies.)12

To add insult to injury, advertising companies like to brag about how much data they get from third-party cookies. Jeff Rosenblum, a founding partner at Questus said, “Every time [a user] clicks, she tells us something about herself. Looking at the travel category as an example we can all relate to, those clicks let us know about her family structure, budget, location, travel preferences, motivations and purchase barriers. We know where she wants to stay, when she wants to stay, why she wants to stay, what she wants to do, how much she wants to spend, who she wants to travel with, what barriers stand in her way and what motivators can get her over the final purchase hurdle.”13 Quantcast proclaimed, “Our data set is so extensive, it’s equivalent to having coffee with every U.S. online user every hour.”14 And Jason Jercinovic, the global head of marketing innovation at Havas, said, “We can now assess the entirety of an individual’s social activity: every word, every picture, every emoji. Add to that location-based data from mobile phones, transactional data from credit cards and adjacent data sets like news and weather. When machine learning and advanced algorithms are applied to these oceans of digital information, we can intimately understand the motivations of almost every consumer.”15

Unlike the previous three methods for gathering data (which I’ve written about here, here, and here), third-party cookies aren’t limited to a specific website or company; they can span across the entirety of the Internet. Thankfully, however, third-party cookies can be periodically wiped out, reducing their impact.16 I wish I could say the same for this final method for gathering data:

Method 5: Internet Service Providers

Header image by Vectors Market from Noun Project

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References:

  1. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  2. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  3. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (3-6).
  4. John Naughton. “EU cookie laws could cause unwary firms to get their fingers burnt.” The Guardian. December 17, 2011. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  5. Jeff Rosenblum. “Campaigns are dead. Modern marketing is a data exchange.AdAge. July 12, 2016. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  6. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (108).
  7. Jason Jercinovic. “The ethics of using AI in advertising.AdAge. June 26, 2017. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  8. How to Clear Cache and Cookies.” WikiHow. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  9. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  10. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  11. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (3-6).
  12. John Naughton. “EU cookie laws could cause unwary firms to get their fingers burnt.” The Guardian. December 17, 2011. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  13. Jeff Rosenblum. “Campaigns are dead. Modern marketing is a data exchange.AdAge. July 12, 2016. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  14. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (108).
  15. Jason Jercinovic. “The ethics of using AI in advertising.AdAge. June 26, 2017. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  16. How to Clear Cache and Cookies.” WikiHow. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  17. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  18. HTTP cookie.” Wikipedia. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  19. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (3-6).
  20. John Naughton. “EU cookie laws could cause unwary firms to get their fingers burnt.” The Guardian. December 17, 2011. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  21. Jeff Rosenblum. “Campaigns are dead. Modern marketing is a data exchange.AdAge. July 12, 2016. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  22. John Cheney-Lippold, We Are Data: Algorithms and The Making of Our Digital Selves. New York University Press. 2017 (108).
  23. Jason Jercinovic. “The ethics of using AI in advertising.AdAge. June 26, 2017. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.
  24. How to Clear Cache and Cookies.” WikiHow. Web. Accessed on 12/13/17.