The modern Internet runs on advertising, whether it’s those annoying pop-up or obscuring ads that get in the way of the content you really want to read, or pre-roll ads on video streaming sites.
What’s less well understood by many everyday consumers is how all of these ads essentially play “together” to build a profile of your interests and then target you around ads you’re more likely to click on.
Spend a lot of time on, say a forum dedicated to bushwalking? You’re probably going to see a lot of ads for hiking boots, maybe tents or new UV-rated hats to keep sunburn at bay.
Go searching for a deal on a new mattress for your bed on Google? The odds are very good you’ll be hit with sponsored content inserts in your Facebook feed for the next month.
It’s a complex web of cookie tracking, “invisible” pixels that load when you look at a page and technologies that slowly build up a picture of your interests.
Advertisers — most notably Google — argue that it means you’re served ads that are much more likely to be of interest to you.
At the same time they can feel very invasive. That’s especially true given the use of machine learning to widen those profiles, which can sometimes verge on seeming like it’s spying on you.
To take the example above, if you spent a lot of time researching bushwalking but also spent time researching the movies of Humphrey Bogart, an AI-led search approach might assume you’re an older Internet user.
Alongside your hiking boot ads, you might get served a bunch of ads for arthritis cures. Why? Because those two seemingly unrelated details might match together well for an older bushwalker with sore joints.
There’s genuine concern here around general privacy, but there are steps you can take minimise the impact this kind of tracking has on you.
The folks behind the Firefox browser recently created a rather cheeky site at https://trackthis.link/ that mass spams your browser with 100 different sites to fool trackers into thinking your interests are wildly different than reality. You don’t have to be using Firefox to use the site, although it’s clearly also a way to promote an alternative browser option.
You click on a link, it opens the 100 tabs according to the profile you chose. It’s wise to make sure your Internet connection and computer are up for that kind of processing abuse first! From that, any tracker would add those “interests” to your profile, making it less useful in that tracked advertising sense.
It’s a stunt in many ways, and a brute force one at that. There are simpler ways to limit the quantity of tracking that happens online. Logging into a Google or Facebook account can be super-handy for automatically filling in passwords and remembering search history, but it’s also the prime way you’re tracked across multiple web sites — not just Google or Facebook.
There are web browser plugins such as Ghostery or AdBlock that can limit the number of ads you ultimately see, although I’d suggest exercising caution with those.
They can work, but plenty of sites with entirely decent content rely on those ads to keep the lights on. For sites that abuse ad content to a ridiculous extreme, go nuts, but don’t forget to allow ads — usually called “whitelisting” — on the sites you treasure. Visit them too often with no ad revenue, and they might not be there much longer.