What is targeted advertising?
Have you ever looked for a product online and later been bombarded by loads of ads for similar items or brands, even when you’re not interested anymore? This happens because of targeted advertising. Advertisers collect data about your online behaviour: the websites you visit, your search history, things you or your friends like on social media and then shows you brands and products based on that information. For example, when you see the AdChoices icon (see fig. 1) on any ad (see fig. 2) when you visit a website, it means that you are being shown an ad based on your online behaviour.
So…isn’t that a good thing?
Targeted advertising focusing on different groups of people based on their identity and taste is an age old advertising practice. What’s new here is the amount of information now these advertisers have access to. These days we bare our lives online, where everything from our interests, dislikes is now out there on the internet.
To customise ads to be more “relevant” to you, online entities often collect sensitive personal data like your location, sexual orientation, health data, date of birth, race or caste.
- Companies looking to understand their consumer base so they can tailor their branding and convince you to buy their product.
- Political consultants that seek to influence your votes by knowing exactly who you vote for.
- Bad actors like stalkers who can blackmail you by threatening to leak information online.
- Government agencies who want to gather more information on criminal suspects, information on housing and mobility, etc. For instance, in the US the government has tried to bypass the warrant process to get personal information about people through data brokers.
In some cases, this collection of data by advertisers can have other negative effects on an individual’s life. For example, advertisers targeted only men and excluded women and older people, leading to unequal employment opportunities.
Not as innocent as you thought, right? So, how does it work?
Companies collect data using online tracking technologies and tools like:
- Cookies are small files that store things like your name, address or phone number. They are given to a web browser by a web server which stores this data and sends it back to the server which helps in loading pages faster and maintaining your site preferences (like language settings on the website).
- Fingerprinting, where websites collect “innocent-looking but largely unchanging technical information about your computer” like your operating system or screen resolution to create your behaviour profile.
- Session Replay Scripts, which track an individual’s online behavior like mouse movements and clicks. It can even allow a website to share screen recordings that can reveal your credit card details and billing address.
Who does this?
Data brokers, entities that either gather data themselves, buy it from the internet or aggregate information from various offline sources. They then buy or sell this data to parties that might be interested in it.
The worst part is that we are not even aware that we’ve consented to give away our data. By consent we mean the right to share what you want, how much you want and in what context. But often, these terms of agreement, when we sign up for a service like downloading an app, are hard to understand or hidden in privacy policies. This makes it hard to exercise consent in a meaningful way as you are not sure what or how much data you are giving up.
So what can we do about it?
You can take a couple of steps to protect yourself from online tracking:
- Use a privacy-conscious search engine like Duckduckgo and browser add-on like Ghostery or uBlock Origin.
- Switch to a privacy-conscious browser like Brave, Mozilla Firefox or Tor
- Give only a few access permissions at the time of installation. Ask yourself:
a) Does this app need access to my data for it to work properly?
b)Does the app need access to location, camera or microphone all the time or just temporarily?
c)Do I trust this company with my data?
If you want to know more, head over to: https://reclaimyourprivacy.in/target_ads.php