Creepy, isn’t it?
This is the reality of behavioural targeting on the Internet. There is a whole new industry, specialist companies surreptitiously gathering data about every site you visit and your activity. And they are then making inferences and perhaps sharing this data, with or without your permission, with other websites.
So, for example, Google has inferred that I’m a man, aged 35-44. Why might that be the case? Because it knows I regularly visit sites like Mashable or Wired or SearchEngineLand, and clearly 50 year old women don’t do that!
But how does Google know that? Because it is using tracking software to keep an eye on what I’m doing.
Find out who is watching you: Ghostery
For example, I regularly use the Hotels.com website to book my business travel. I know Hotels.com is using remarketing, the advertising technique that means I continue to see Hotels.com advertisements persistently after I’ve searched. And I know they are personalising the ads to my behaviour.
However, Ghostery also shows me that Hotels.com is using no fewer than 29 different behavioural targeting and tracking applications.
There are some old favourites in there, like the Google Analytics and the Google DoubleClick advertising network.
But there are lots of new names that I certainly want to learn more about, and Ghostery provides not only the names of who is doing the tracking, but also links through to the major tracking sites:
Collusion: interaction between the trackers
Next, I have installed an experimental tracking application called Collusion.
Collusion creates a visual representation of the interaction between the behavioural trackers. You will see familiar logos from the websites I visited today: Tesco, Amazon, Mashable, Hotels.com, Tripadvisor and the like. What the spider web is illustrating is the relationship between each of these sites in terms of how they track my behaviour.
Taking one example of behavioural targeting
If I just select one of these nodes to simplify the picture that will make it easier to understand what the data is showing us. Click on the image to make it larger so you can see the detail.
Using The Economist website as an example, in the image below I can see that The Economist is using a range of tracking services, including QuantServe.
QuantServe in turn is collecting information about my behaviour, you guessed it, from Hotels.com, as well as lots of other sites I use, for example LinkedIn, Experian, Tripadvisor, Hootsuite.
So what is the big deal?
I think there are 3 issues for us to be thinking about as the world of behavioural targeting gets more sophisticated. I don’t think there is anything wrong with tracking, but certainly there are issues to explore:
- Have I given permission for this tracking to take place?
- Does the tracking add any value or benefit to my experience on the website?
- Nothing, but nothing, on the Internet is private, and that includes “anonymised” tracking data. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do some analysis and it will almost certainly be possible to identify individuals.