Along with COVID tracking apps came outcry. Flocks of people were concerned that the government was tracking their location, data, pictures or personal information. When SnapChat introduced facial filters, thousands conspired that the government were using them as a means to track people. Whenever you have a conversation with a friend about a product, you magically get related ads, despite never having actually searched it. Worse, sometimes even thoughts about a product seem to conjure up advertisements without ever even speaking them aloud. Is Big Brother watching everything we do? Do we have to protect ourselves from being spied on? What are cookies, and what are companies using them for? Figuring out how data is used and what it’s used for seems scary. In reality, it’s just another tool marketers use to determine what customers want. And it’s more accurate than you think.
YouTube and Netflix and Prime, Oh My!
Streaming platforms probably have the most obvious and open “we’re watching you” tools, and people rarely seem to mind. The immediate effects of data mining are beneficial to the user, so nobody complains about streaming platforms obviously monitoring them. When someone watches a video on a certain topic on YouTube, the algorithm, recognizing the content of the video, recommends another one similar. This function exists on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Crave, Netflix and any other streaming service. Watching a comedy from the ‘90s will shift the respective streaming service to recommend similar videos. Viewers generally love this function. I don’t want to be recommended stuff that I don’t like. I love when YouTube gives me a follow-up video of the same topic. This is a win-win for the streaming service, who never wants me to leave the house, and me, who wants good content.
Data and Shopping
Online retailers like Amazon or eBay record what customers buy to recommend similar or better products. Cyber stores keep track of what other users have purchased, so they can up-sell other customers in the future. Those with online stores – aka every business on earth – have a massive interest in monitoring what customers are buying or browsing. Businesses can see that people love one item, even if they’re not buying it, and can decrease the price. They can better know their customers, and therefore, better sell to you or I. On certain websites like Amazon, they can track a user’s movements. They use this to see if there’s correlation between what they’re looking at and what others are. It might sound creepy, but they’re looking to see what you’re looking for and how it aligns with others’ searches. This way, they can better your shopping experience.
Search Sites Data
Google also monitors what people are searching to better satisfy their results. They recognize an IP address and computer and know what previous things that person has searched for. Then, they use that information to recommend something along the lines of what they’ve looked for. Google is getting to know your personality though what you’ve searched to better know what you want out of searches. This way, results will be more targeted towards your interests and even location. Searching for politics in Norway will have different results than in Brazil. Obviously! There are different political spheres in different places.
What are Cookies?
Besides the delightful but unfortunately considered low-class treat, cookies store bits of information about where you visit on the web and what you click on. Websites or platforms don’t share cookies with one another. If you have cookies on CNN, they won’t share it to Lululemon. The cookies you have on one website will inform the website the kind of stuff you looked at. This way, if you revisit the website, they’ll know what you came for before. Now, they’ll know what you might want when you revisit. When you online shop and the store seems to know what you want, it might be because you’ve already been there and they know you.
How Do They Know What I’m Thinking?
I feel like virtually everyone I know has had the same thought: you think about something, or you have a conversation about something, and the next day you get an advertisement for that exact thing. Are they listening to our conversations? Can they read our minds? The answer is a lot less dramatic than you think. Logged into your computer or your smartphone are your various social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all collect data about what you’re searching on their respective sites. Google shares what you search with other websites, including these websites. They share what you’re searching and generate ads from companies related to your searches for you. It’s just really smart and quick tracking.
But… how do they know about something you haven’t searched and only said aloud? Well, only those at Facebook and Instagram’s headquarters will know if they’re tracking your conversations, but it’s very unlikely. Alexa in itself is tracking what you’re saying when it’s on. But, this seems pretty obvious, it’s attached to your Amazon account. It can easily use this information to make your Amazon purchases more accurate. But, the more likely explanation is that other applications are getting much better at tracking you – to the point where it seems like they can read your mind. They know what you’re going to search because they’ve compared your search history to thousands of others and they recognize patterns.
How Good Can Data Tracking Be?
I was reading about magic tricks and how magicians can know what card you thought of. The trick is either on the magician – who said something in the conversation that has a mnemonic response (they mentioned tomatoes, now you’re thinking of hearts) – or they’ve trained themselves to know basic queues very well. If a magician can know what you’re thinking of from mannerisms, a computer can know based off everything you’ve searched. For example, if you often explore the men’s fashion side of Instagram, you might be interested in Off-White. From there you might be interested in something related to Off-White, like Nike. Through Nike, you might be interested in Drake’s NOCTA line. From Drake, you’ll be interested in…..you get it. They’ve tracked thousands of others whose thought follows the same pattern as yours, and they successfully execute it on you.
They’re also tracking your location, with your permission. Unbeknownst to you consciously, your location has a huge effect on what you search for. People often say that when they visit their parents, the advertisements they get suddenly change – it’s because of the location. If an app knows your relative age and location, they can slowly try different interests to see what you’re interested in. Whatever you bite, they supply ads for. It’s not that tech giants are tracking your conversations, it’s that they’re extremely talented at predicting the kind of person you are.
Am I in Danger?
No! Probably not. Big Brother likely doesn’t care about what you do. More importantly, there are people who regularly use the Internet to sell drugs or weapons and never get caught because the tracking systems are not that adept. On top of that, nobody is that interesting that the feds are desperately watching them Google “how long do snakes grow” “is it true snakes never stop growing?” “why don’t snakes stop growing?” or other inane questions for hours on end. Your search history really is only interesting to companies who want your business. If it concerns you deeply, go into your phone or Google account’s settings, and ask that they not track your location or data.
Featured Image by Sergiu Nista for UNSPLASH.COM