Although there have been a large number of benefits of the internet revolution, one of the downsides has been the invasion of privacy. Take a second to think about the personal information you have put online, whether that be on secure sites or online forums. If someone was able to harness all that information, there would be an excellent portfolio on your preferences. Advertising agencies are trying to accomplish that, and see it as the future of internet advertising.
Every time you visit a website, your computer records the visit on a “cookie”. This cookie contains small pieces of information, so if you decide to come back to the site, it will load faster. The information in these cookies is being harvested to give the advertisers a clearer picture on your browsing history, so they can serve up the advertisement they think you will want.
A perfect example would be for advertisements of technology. If your cookies suggested that you were after the latest and greatest technology, and had a large budget, then you would see an ad for the latest TV released. If your cookies suggested that you had been shopping around for the cheapest price, and all the other products you looked at (not always electronic products also) were cut price, then the ad would display the best deal/latest sale. Two separate people would see different ads tailored to them.
The type of information they could get from the cookies include age bracket, income bracket, location (affluent city or rural outpost?) and even if there are children in the house. This information would take research firms hours to gather, but could be discovered quite easily by examining the cookies.
Before you decide to don your luddite cap and take a shotgun to your computer, there is an easier solution: delete the cookies from your system. The issue is that it is a minority of people who do this, so consumer advocacy groups are worried that the Orwellian Overlords (slight exaggeration… perhaps) are still collecting more data than is safe to have out there. When was the last time your backed up your information? Sure, we all know we need to do it, but nobody does. It’s the same with cookies: people may want to keep the information secret, but very few people take the time to do it.
Realistically, I don’t believe that this information is going to be harmful to the individuals. If there is a connection between the online and the offline world, where they can track where you live, who you associate with, and what you buy, then it gets tricky. Where is the line drawn for too much information? Should we be advised to a greater degree by the websites on what information they are collecting? As with any emerging technology, there are always new ethical issues raised.