How cookies on computers put consumers in digital buckets
June 14, 2015 12:00 AM
Google, which also owns data analysis firm Google Analytics and digital advertising management firm DoubleClick, reported $59.6 billion in advertising revenues in 2014, up from $51 billion the previous year.
By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This story is part of Surveillance Society, a series examining the implications privacy intrusions, many of which occur on a daily basis. For more stories in the series, including a multimedia look at one particular Bad Data Day, go to post-gazette.com/surveillance.
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There is a trail of digital cookie crumbs that weaves a winding path through cyberspace to send information from your computer to advertisers’ databases, allowing companies to create detailed profiles of you.
The original concept behind the small text files, known as cookies, left on computers was to identify repeat users, save profile information and ensure consistency in font and language settings. But now what are known as third-party cookies are used to track your actions not only on a single site, but across the Web, tracking your browsing habits. Tiny graphic images known as pixel tags or Web beacons are also used as trackers.
These trackers are used to send information to ad networks. The advent of such networks — companies that use information from trackers placed on thousands of sites to create consumer profiles to sell to brands seeking their target demographic — introduced an era in which advertisers can hone pitches that go to specific groups of consumers.
“If I move around the Internet and visit 100 different sites that are part of an ad network ... the network will put me into what’s called a bucket,” explains Andrew Garberson, search manager for South Side-based digital marketing firm LunaMetrics.
“They’ll say this person looks at sites that are targeted toward males ages 25 to 34. I like articles about digital advertising. Just by my browser setting they can tell I speak English. Then they’ll say it seems my interests align with somebody who is a 25-to-34-year-old male who speaks English and enjoys reading about digital advertising. Then they’ll put me into this bucket to allow advertisers to serve ads tailored to those buckets.”
Noting that LunaMetrics is a Google Certified Partner, Mr. Garber said the tech giant is by far the industry leader in digital advertising. He said many brands turn to Google AdWords — an ad network that allows companies to bid for the chance to post display ads to groups of users based on keywords — because the company has the largest number of partners signed up to post display ads through its Google AdSense product. Google, which also owns data analysis firm Google Analytics and digital advertising management firm DoubleClick, reported $59.6 billion in advertising revenues in 2014, up from $51 billion the previous year.
Although Google is the overseer of billions of pieces of personally identifiable information through email service Gmail, social networking site Google+, Google Maps and other properties, Mr. Garberson said the company has strict policies against passing along such information to companies using Google Analytics, which scans through the cookies to create the categories that are turned into buckets for AdWords and gives brands using the product statistics on how their ads are performing on sites where they are displayed.
Companies using Analytics can find information about general location, sites visited, videos watched or searches made but don’t have access to phone numbers, addresses, Social Security numbers or any other information that allows them to identify any person individually.
“Instead of seeing this is Andrew Garberson, he works at LunaMetrics, a company will see information about a male who is 30-ish and has an interest in marketing,” he said.
Google might keep tight reins on personally identifiable information, but just because it isn’t personally identifiable doesn’t mean it isn’t personal, said Lorrie Cranor, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory.
“There are catalogs of the types of data you can buy from [some] ad networks — they sell profiles, they sell people’s characteristics. Let’s say you want to find people who have mental health problems, you can actually buy a list of people who have mental health problems. You can also buy lists of people who used to go to church but have stopped going. All sorts of stuff that you might consider personal, they’ve compiled [into] lists.”
With privacy concerns surrounding data collection abounding, there have been changes. Google recently unrolled its My Account portal, which points users to pages where they can view personal information collected by the company or completely delete accounts and data collected. Mr. Garberson also said he expects the practice of re-targeting — sending ads to users based on past product searches— to be refined so that ads go to only users who truly intended to buy the product.
But the practice of collecting data to target consumers is not going away, Mr. Garberson said.
“It’s huge and it’s getting [bigger],” he said.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd. Rich Lord contributed.
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