Have you ever been creeped out by websites that seem to be tracking you? Perhaps you've seen ads for something that you and your friend talked about (but never searched for) and are worried that certain apps are listening to you.
Just this morning, I was reading a news article, and lo and behold, I saw ads for shoes that I searched for thirty minutes prior. It even followed me to Facebook! Then last week, my friend and I were talking about this concert we wanted to attend, and a few days later, I saw ads telling me to buy tickets to this concert. Talk about creepy!
While I can't confirm that companies are listening on you (who knows), there is an easy explanation as to why you get ads that follow you around the web and why you coincidentally get ads based off of conversations that you had offline. The simple answer are cookies - and no, these cookies are not yummy. The longer answer involves many other types of online tracking methods like device fingerprinting in addition to cookies.
Below, we'll go into detail about how online tracking works and what you can do to control who is tracking you online.
In general, cookies allow sites to store information on your device. First-party cookies are placed by the website you visit. These cookies typically help you become more efficient while online by remembering things like:
Third-party cookies are those placed by any party other than the website you're on. These cookies may come from companies that the website partners with like advertising networks or analytics firms. These cookies help the website and advertisers understand which ads to deliver to you and help the website better understand how people use their site.
These cookies can also be placed in your browser to allow companies to monitor your online behavior throughout time. This is why an advertiser showed an ad for a concert that my friend and I talked about and how they were able to do so. These companies have gathered so much information about me from tracking me, that they can accurately predict what my interests are - which can be VERY creepy.
Flash cookies are small files stored on a device by a website using Adobe's Flash player. Similar to first-party and third-party cookies, flash cookies store information regarding your online activities - like your settings and preferences.
HTML 5 Cookies
Similar to first-party cookies, third-party cookies, and flash cookies, HTML5 cookies can be used to store information and identify a user over time. HTML5 cookies tend to be much faster and are more secure, created to eliminate security issues of traditional cookies. These cookies, however, do not necessarily disappear when you delete or clear cookies from your browser.
Based on your browser's configuration and settings, this tracking method can track devices over time. This is because each browser is unique and can identify a device without cookies. Deleting cookies here won't help since device fingerprinting uses your browser configuration to track and identify you.
Currently, device fingerprinting technologies can track you on any internet-connected devices that have browsers, including phones, tablets, laptop and desktop computers.
Mobile App Tracking
All devices have unique device identifiers that third party advertising and analytics companies can use to monitor different applications used on a device. - On iOS, the device ID is the IDFA or IFA for short (Identity for Advertisers).
If you're a little creeped out (I certainly was as I was writing this article) and wondering how to get companies to stop tracking your information and browsing habits, read our "Dear Internet, Stop Tracking Me!" article here.