It is no surprise that websites nowadays track your every move. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc etc. The list goes on and on and for the most part people hate it, which is normal. People want to sign up for a website and have no data stored anywhere. Which unfortunately isn't possible in our day and age. Ten years ago it was more possible I think. The web was a static place and you grabbed your content and then made your way out. And then people discovered user authentication and voila, our digital life began to form. But in order for that to work, your name and email need to be stored somewhere. Your birthday needs to captured, sometimes to prove that you're 13+ years old. And sometimes when you browse a product online, your ID will go in some ProductView database table.
Digital tracking for some reason leaves a bad taste in peoples mouths. Maybe its because most people aren't too familiar with technology or maybe its because people constantly hear in the news about their info getting stolen online, but tracking anything online gets a bad rep. So let's take a look at some of the most common tracking methods, and why most of them are pretty harmless and why websites need them.
Those cookies though
Cookies are smalls bits of text that get stored in your browser, and usually live until you close your browser or until the website decides that its time. You can also take matters into your own hands and clear your cookies whenever you wish. The web probably wouldn't work without cookies. For example, if you want to log on to a website, then there needs to be some mechanism in place that will communicate to the server who you are, otherwise you'd be logging in to every single page on a website. By themselves they're pretty harmless, however, they can be used to track your activities on website. If for example, you're not logged on to a site, the server can then generate a random key, set it as a cookie on your browser, and then use that token to keep track of which pages you have viewed. Note however that there is no way for your personal information to be transmitted in this way.
For the most part if a website is tracking your web surfing habits, its usually to serve you more relate-able content or to better understand how their website is doing. On the other hand, ads also serve you cookies and they're purpose is to serve you ads that you'll probably click on. But that's definitely not the cookies fault. It's just a side effect of how useful they are.
Everything you do probably goes in a database
That's probably not an exaggeration. If you click on a link, something logs it, if you search for a video on YouTube, that query gets saved somewhere and if you browse for something on Amazon, you'd better believe that's getting stored somewhere. But this is true outside of the interwebs as well. People use club cards at grocery stores, and use their credit cards to purchase pretty much anything and everything. All of this gets stored somewhere. For many many reasons. Mainly, that there are companies trying to operate a business, and deleting their customers habits is simply bad for business. YouTube stores your info to get a better idea of which videos you might watch. Amazon stores your shopping habits, obviously, so that it can show you other products that you might also want to buy.
And most dreaded of all, Google will store pretty much anything and everything that you do online. I use the term dreaded loosely, because what you get back is amazing, and it's free. Google gets to serve you more relevant ads, and you get free office tools, a millisecond global search for any keyword, maps with detailed traffic patterns. Which brings me to my next point:
Picture a world without it
Not that long ago, this was how things worked. Websites were just static text and image templates that you read and then forgot about an hour later. Even chat room back in the day were just meeting places for anonymous people where you chose a username right before jumping on. Kids nowadays wouldn't understand, but oh what a weird time it was. Just imagine logging in to Amazon and having random products listed that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. Imagine those terrible banner ads that flashed gold telling you won something. Who doesn't remember those! For the most part, those days are long gone. Because ad networks have a better idea of who they're serving ads to, you know get the Guitar Center ad, or the Surface 3 ad or the ad that you don't mind staring at for 10 seconds. And why? Because these websites know that you are more likely to click on something that you like, than on a flashing yellow banana screaming to you to click on it.
I was on LinkedIn recently, and I decided to look at the people that I may know tab. And I was shocked. People that I remember but that I hadn't spoken to in years popped up before my eyes. It's a trade off for sure. LinkedIn gets to send more invites to people, and I get to have the power of their search at my disposal. Personally, I think that it's a fair deal.
Many people have this misconception that everything you click on online gets viewed by some higher council in an underground layer. And I'm 99% sure that that is not the truth. For the most part, no one looks at your data. They just can't. There's too much of it and its probably hidden away in very complex data schemas that most people wouldn't understand. Your data in the end gets analyzed by computers, which then use this data to make websites that you are more likely to interact with. As I mentioned, it's this weird trade-off of functionality and convenience in exchange for a digital blueprint of yourself. In the end, its still up to you whether you want to take a part in it. You can always just surf the web in private mode and avoid any and all registrations screens. But where would the fun be in that.
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Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.