Have you ever needed a flight from London to Brazzaville (or any other unusual place), for then one day opening your Facebook account and finding the ad of exactly that flight?
Such a weird coincidence, isn’t it?
…your computer knows…
And much as this might sound as the creepy beginning of some Orwell’s novel, it comes from a pretty simple process. The computer knows what you want because you told it to it; probably you just do not remember doing it.
…do not remember that you put “Africa” between your interests…
For instance, you do not remember that you put “Africa” between your interests in your profile. That you joined the group page of a volunteers’ association that works in Congo. That you posted a link about safaris on a friend’s wall.
All this information was carefully stored by both Facebook and your computer and allowed them to work out that the London–Brazzaville flight ad could interest you.
…it is somewhere in your laptop…
The mechanism that they used is called ‘cookies’. It is that one thing you always hear of, you know that it is somewhere in your laptop, but have never bothered learning how it works.
Well, in short, cookies works as a tracking system: they are addresses that each website adds in your computer and which store all your movements on that specific website. When you open it a second time, the website can access the cookie address and recollect all your previous information.
…information kept by cookies is continuously accessed…
Nothing of what you do online is forgotten. The information kept by cookies is continuously accessed and used: sometimes to advertise the flight you need, others to suggest which book you should buy (remember Amazon recommendations?), or to show the results of a research in your order of preference.
Everything is personalised for you by websites that know what you like and what you might want.
…I really like to find a nice book among my Amazon recommendations…
On the one hand, it is a helpful thing. Personally, I really like to find a nice book among my Amazon recommendations, or to have Google show me something I might be looking for before all the other random stuff on the web.
In the future, this could evolve to make our lives much easier. On a boring Tuesday evening, for instance, the Internet could automatically provide you with an event that is perfect for you. On a shopping day, it could spare you hours of searches by showing you exactly the pair of shoes that you like and where to buy them.
…You buy the shoes advertised, although you did not really need them…
Yet there are a couple of negative sides to consider. The advertisement component, for instance. If the advertised products are selected specifically for you, it is likely that you will end up buying them. You buy Amazon recommended books, although you had not intended to do so. You buy the shoes advertised, although you did not really need them, but they seemed to be made for you. Maybe they are even expensive. In short, tracking generates a new sort of advertisement, personalised one, more convincing and efficient, against which we do not have antibodies yet.
Until now, any net surfer could decide to avoid cookies and tracking. You can go on a remote folder that goes under the name of ‘Cookies’ and just delete all its content. You can even block cookies by changing the privacy settings on your browser (default settings are not cookie-less). Simple and fair.
…who has no control anymore over his privacy.
However, cookies are only the first stage. A recent research by Stanford and Berkeley Universities denounced the use of so-called ‘supercookies’ by famous websites such as MSN.com and Hulu. These cannot be blocked nor deleted from one’s computer and they are practically invisible to the net surfer, who has no control anymore over his privacy. One of the supercookies found can even trace your browsing history, so basically it can read which websites you navigated.
Once discovered, supercookies started to be abolished by the websites that were using them and should soon disappear from the web. Also, companies such as Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple and Google have been asked to create ‘Do not track’ options, while Facebook has recently enhanced its privacy settings.
This does not mean that tracking systems will be abandoned, but only that users will be able to decide whether or not to subscribe to them.
And in the end, I believe most of us will choose to be tracked, including myself, because it is so practical to have the Internet know what you like and need. The supercookies scandal has demonstrated us that nowadays keeping one’s privacy is hardly possible; now the question is: ‘Is it really beneficial?’.
Image courtesy of Sesame Street