We recently wrote an article about Browser Privacy Modes and mentioned that those modes were not able to stop certain other services from tracking your activities online, such as your ISP, plugins, and certain special cookies. We felt it was important to cover how and why we are all tracked across the Internet. The results are probably not surprising to most of our readers.
This post is not intended to be all-inclusive, nor exhaustive in explanation. Let’s dive in:
This form of tracking often shows a site owner how many people visit their site over a period of time, how a visitor arrived at their site, general geographical location of visitors, the company identification (network identification) of a visitor, and other technical details like the browser and operating system used by visitors. This helps most websites craft better content or show ads that are more relevant to their visitors, which brings us to our next point.
Advertisers supplying ads to a website track different information from different sources across the Internet. Their tracking is far more complex than that required by site owners. By using multiple databases online, combined with information gathered from the analytics of the web browser (see above), advertisers are able to track visitors across different websites. They often track visitors’ age, gender, location, previous online purchases, social profiles, links visited, IP address, and other analytics from the browser.
Social media tracking is done by scripts on a page that are able to track your presence across the Internet, much like ads. This is because most people do not logout of their profile when they are done browsing a social media website. That login is tracked on sites where all of your favorite social media buttons are included. Part of the benefit of easy sharing is being tracked so social media websites can serve you more-relevant ads when you return.
This type of tracking is often used by advertisers and occasionally site owners, but also HTML email campaigns sent by large companies. This form of tracking includes “hotspots” of where people click on a page, links or pictures that are clicked, sections of a page that is viewed, and even eye motion. Some of this tracking can be done through scripts included on the page, but things like eye motion and page section tracking are often done in testing facilities under special instruction.
Most of this tracking is accomplished through a very simple technology that has been around for a long time: cookies. A cookie is a simple text file that your browser stores and maintains as you browse the Internet. If you have ever visited Amazon or Facebook and have not had to sign-in again, that was accomplished through a cookie. When Amazon shows you items you have previously browsed, they are not storing that on their servers, it is also tracked by a cookie. Cookies were made with the best of intentions, but they can be abused. This becomes a concern of privacy, of which you should be aware. We will discuss this topic at a later date.
Just as a bonus, there is a browser add-on that allows you to see exactly who and what is tracking you on a webpage. Discretion is advised with this add-on, because you might see a lot of things with which you are unfamiliar on pages you browse.