Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Are "Computer Cookies" As Benign As You Think? No...

I was pulling together a piece on how stores are tracking your phone's Wi-Fi signals to help them gather marketing data on their customers.

In that piece, folks were a bit agitated that they knew they were being tracked.  I said "knew" because stores have been tracking customers with video cameras and other tactics for quite some time it seems.

And the old adage, what we don't know won't hurt us, just might apply.  Because once we know we're being tracked, or maybe, emotionally feeling like we're being stalked, this marketing angle becomes an entirely new aspect.

But what I found interesting was that even though folks were agitated about being tracked in a store, they have no issues with websites and apps leaving cookies on their PC or phones.

Surfers and the like think that a cookie is rather benign and holds very little information.

LOL.

A cookie is one piece of info left or used by a single website.  Every single website you visit leaves at least one cookie on your surfing system.  Sometimes, many more.

A website will use a cookie.  Any ads on any website will each leave/use a cookie.  Some insidious sites, even images on some sites do nasty things and leave or use cookies.

I've seen some sites that dump or use 30 or 40 or upwards of 70 cookies when you land on their pages.  That's a single site.  Then every page you go to on that site, new ads, new cookies.  It can be silly.

But what folks don't get is that cookies are left for and read not only by the originating website, but other sites as well. 

Your collection of benign cookies is a wealth of information waiting to be culled by other websites or apps that look to do that.

Your smartphones love tracking where you are by GPS, then deliver you ads based on location and your past surfing behavior.  Google is pretty rich for maintain a billion records.  And interestingly, it's not all on the phone or PC, but in a tracking database off in some server farm.

Hey, if you think cookies are harmless,check this out:

ON one of my sites, my visitors are

  • Close to equal numbers for gender,
  • Over half my visitors have "Some College"  while
  • About 30% have college degrees.
  • That 60% surf my website from home, the rest, from work.

And that on average, my visitors spend just over 1 minute reading what web page they landed on.

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Now that was just a quickie outline of stats I have available to me from the cookies that are on your computer systems and phones, so don't get too comfortable thinking one cookie isn't harmful.

It's like a jigsaw puzzle.  A piece here and there makes no sense.  But when you are at websites, they look at the collective of cookies on your system and put the puzzle together.

On your smartphones, have you ever noticed how some of the ads that pop up in your browsing or app usage seem correlated to stuff you seem to like or are near in proximity?

Or that ads in sidebars and banners seem to hit on things that interest you?

That's the system culling ALL the information from the collective of cookies or other tracking bits on your PC/laptop/phones and doing the "math" on who you are.

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And to be honest, the moment we get out of bed, it seems our own privacy is up for grabs.  It's sort of crazy!

But it's also how things work.  If you like headed online and seeing things you like more often than not in ads, that's cookies working for you.

If you're on the road and your map app is pointing out that Hooters is having a special, that's cookies and app tracking working for me.  Hmm... oops.

We can live by cutting ourselves off from all this, but it would be a wee bit more difficult.

Me, I prefer to think that they'll lose me in all the noise of the millions upon millions of surfers "they" track.

I hope.
-Bruce
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Hi - sorry for the confirmation but I need to weed out the noise from the well intended comments. Thanks for leaving a note... - Bruce