How Exactly Websites Track And Stalk You With Their Ads

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what websites trackLast year, our very own Danny Stieben wrote an article about DuckDuckGo, one of the newest search engines to break through in popularity–some people even prefer it over Google. DuckDuckGo’s success hinges on the notion that it prioritizes user privacy, and this idea of user privacy has become a hot topic in recent years.

For many people, privacy is considered to be a universal right that should never be infringed upon. Just take a look at the number of privacy-related controversies that have occurred in the past. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook faced a lot of heat related to Facebook privacy options. Even Google endured a lot of criticism for its user privacy changes earlier this year.

Privacy, privacy, privacy. The Internet is known for its anonymity. Without personal privacy, it would be a very dangerous place. But are these companies infringing on privacy rights? How exactly does a website track its users? And what do companies do with that data?

what websites track

For the most part, the danger of losing personal privacy while online begins with search engines. You’ve heard of Google and you know how pervasive that company truly is. Google’s search engine is used on a daily basis in countries all over the world. In fact, it is the #1 most popular site in the world according to Alexa rankings.

How does a search engine track you? It all starts with your search query. Perhaps you’re feeling down in the dumps and you want to hit up Google so you can search for some home flu remedies. As soon as you type that query into the search box and hit Enter, Google records it. If you’re logged into a Google account, it’ll be associated with that account. If not, it’ll be tied to your IP address.

After you’ve entered a search query, you’re presented with a big list of search results. Whenever you click on a search result, Google records that, too. But not only that, Google sends some of your information to that site as well: the search query that you used, your current browser, and some of your computer specifications.

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That doesn’t seem so bad, right? After all, you might think that there’s no way that anyone could identify you as a person simply from the browser you use. But you’d be wrong to think that. The truth is that your browser configuration is likely to be unique, and thus trackable. See for yourself by using Panopticlick’s browser traceability test.

what websites track you

“Okay,” you might be thinking. “So what if a single site could identify my computer by my browser configuration? It just sounds scarier than it really is.” Which might be true, but your privacy doesn’t just end there.

The Internet is known for being an advertising haven. Name any popular site and there’s a good chance that it will be supported by third-party advertisements. Here’s the catch: whenever you access a site that uses third-party ad agencies, those ad agencies begin to build profiles about you as a user.

For example, let’s say you’re an avid gamer and an audiophile. Your daily routine involves visiting a couple of gaming-related sites as well as a few headphones-related forums. If some of those websites serve third-party ads from a particular ad agency, then they’ll know that you are a gaming audiophile. All they have to do is tie that information to your IP address–boom! Profile built.

Ad agencies then use this information to help tailor particular ads to you. As an avid gamer and audiophile, you’ll be more likely to see advertisements related to video games and headphones. This is called targeted advertising.

what websites track

For some of you, this sounds acceptable. A little bit of private information might be an acceptable compromise, especially if it means looking at ads for items you like rather than items you don’t really care about. But your privacy doesn’t just end there, either.

Sometimes, ad agencies will sell your profile to other companies. For the right price, all of that information about you (your routines, your favorite websites, your hobbies, even the personal information you’ve entered on some websites) will be delivered to some company–all without your knowledge of it happening.

But let’s take a moment and go back to those search queries that you enter into Google. You may not know it, but a lot of companies–even governments–request user search and profile data from Google. Even if Google tries their best to protect your search and profile data, it could still be stolen in a hack attempt. Or a renegade Google employee could take advantage of his high position and violate privacy without anyone knowing.

None of this is to take potshots at Google. I love Google’s products and I love how far they’ve taken technology and I respect them for what they do. All I’m saying is that websites and companies know a lot more about you than you think, and this is how they do it.

If you’re looking for ways to protect your online privacy, consider these articles:

Image Credit: Login Image Via Shutterstock, DuckDuckGo Image Via donttrack.us, Handshake Image Via Shutterstock

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Comments (28)
  • dragonmouth

    The only computer that is 100% secure is the one that is disconnected from Internet and power. However, that defeats the purpose of having a computer.

  • Dave

    “Google sends some of your information to that site as well: the search query that you used, your current browser, and some of your computer specifications.”

    I think this line might need revision/clarification. Google doesn’t send search queries in a growing portion of cases, when users are logged in or using encrypted search (which browsers like Firefox are implementing by default). For more information on this, look for articles about “keyword not provided” showing up in Analytics and Google’s announcements from October 2011. It seems typical for websites to find that in the neighborhood of 15% of their traffic referred from Google no longer includes the search terms.

    I’m pretty sure, also, that Google doesn’t send your current browser or computer specs to websites you find through search — that’s actually your web browser/computer that send that data directly to the website.

    The major gist of the article, though, is correct. :)

  • Pablo Vargas

    Well, nothing new to me here, but nice that you are making other people aware of how things are done.

  • Tug Ricks

    That’s why I’m a big fan of Ghostery. At the very least it makes me feel as if I have a bit more control over the information that I give to websites.

  • Joel Lee

    Everything free always comes with a cost.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.