One day you’re browsing for a new car, and the following week you’re swamped with social media ads for dashcams. It’s a familiar story, and yet many of us are shocked and surprised whenever we are confronted with the evidence that our every online movement is tracked.
The analytics code responsible for following you around the internet is embedded across virtually every website we visit. Many cookie consent forms are deliberately vague, trapping us into parting with data, only for that information to be sold or mishandled. Sometimes the data collected on us is used in nefarious ways - particularly in cases of identity theft or fraud.
Recent years have seen a small shift in favor of consumer privacy, with tech giants handed large fines for using trackers invasively or incorrectly. Google, for example, made a $391.5 million settlement last year over charges that the company misled users into believing they had turned off location tracking while the company still collected their information.
But despite some high-profile finger-wagging at tech companies who disregard the privacy of their users, brands and advertisers are still mostly at liberty to track our every engagement online without much resistance.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to change any time soon. The EU commission is currently developing an initiative that would expand brands’ ability to track users online. The plan involves generating a unique digital code from a user’s mobile or network. This digital footprint or ID would allow brands to identify users, categorize them, and target them with personalized content.
To many, this might sound like an innocuous plan to make the internet experience better for users and brands alike. But expanding brands’ ability to collect our personal data raises serious questions about privacy, security, and even the ethics of data collection.
Trackers are essentially pieces of code embedded within websites or apps that allow companies to monitor user behavior. This can include information such as the pages we visit, the links we click, the products we buy, and even our location data.
By collecting and analyzing this data, companies can gain valuable insights into user preferences, habits, and behaviors, which they can then use to optimize their products and services. Arguably the hyper-personalized, modern internet is founded on the use of trackers and data collection.
Personalised ads and targeted browsing experiences do have a superficial benefit for users. There’s no doubt that high-quality targeted ads are a step-up from the glitchy, irrelevant ads that make some websites virtually unusable.
But many consumers will recognize a growing discomfort at just how much of their personal data is collected, stored, and then used to serve them ads aligned with their preferences, location, and browsing history. They feel like the internet giants are following their digital footprint; it’s as if they’re being constantly monitored, their privacy flogged off to the highest bidder.
There’s even a social argument against targeted advertising. Some experts worry that personalized content generated as a result of online tracking risks limiting users’ exposure to new ideas and perspectives, leading to a narrower worldview.
Consumers in control
So, what can internet users do to limit the pervasiveness of online trackers?
The simplest and most effective way is by using a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts internet traffic and hides IP addresses. This makes it much more difficult for advertisers and other third parties to track online activities. It also limits the ways in which hackers or bad actors can gain access to personal information that can later be used for illegal activity.
And while it’s difficult to completely pull the wool over the eyes of online trackers, there's a growing group of internet users breaking away from the big tech players. These users are relying on products and services that actively denounce online tracking in favor of a more transparent version of the internet that respects users’ privacy wishes and allows them to roam free, without fear of constantly being tracked and monitored.
They do this by, for example, visiting websites that actively use privacy-first analytics tools. Of course, for most consumers it’s not easy or even possible to go cold-turkey on all social media and change their internet habits overnight. But small steps like relying on brands that take an active commitment to eschew corporate surveillance gives internet users that bit more control over how their personal information and data is collected and used online.
It’s become far too easy for brands to track our every movement, and users have lost control over their digital destiny as a result. That’s why it’s more important than ever for users to take steps to protect their privacy and identity online. Knowing how brands and businesses track us and collect and use our data is the first step. Armed with this knowledge, internet users can then turn to tools like VPNs to limit the amount of data collected and help preserve their privacy online.
That means internet users have the ability to build a more optimistic internet landscape, one with consumers in control of their data and privacy. And as this movement gathers momentum, brands and big corporations will have no choice but to follow suit.
Sebastian Schaub, CEO, hide.me VPN (opens in new tab)
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