Since the Cambridge Analytica breach and the subsequent hearings Mark Zuckerberg has attended, many people are becoming fixated on the concept of user tracking. While this may come to a surprise to some, almost every website you visit is tracking you.
If you Google what is a cookie – not only do you get the definition of a small sweet confection, but you’ll also find this: An HTTP cookie is a small piece of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing. It’s these cookies that allow websites to track a users actions. Prior to diving into how these collect data, and why this alarming admission from Facebook is laughable, let’s tackle a few facts about cookies.
- Cookies is used by 49.6% of all the websites. I would wager that any major brand you visit has them.
- Cookies have an expiration date and they typically expire in 30-90 days. Although, some are set to “never expire” by setting a expiration 1000’s of years into the future.
- You likely have hundreds of cookies on your device. I just checked and have 664 in total on my machine.
- Cookies can be deleted from your machine – typically it’s in the settings section of your browser.
IMPORTANT – Cookies are not bad. They are designed to be a helpful tool on the web. They can let a website know that you are already logged in, saving the hassle of logging in again. They can also provide feedback to third party systems like Google Adwords, or Facebook to help show you relevant ads (this is known as remarketing). The amount of detail collected varies, but in general these cookies are used to streamline and personalize the experience a user has on the web.
On the surface this is all harmless. Tacking pageviews, clicks and engagement (“session data”) for analytical purposes or to show you ads later is all in the realm of “makes sense.” Where things get a little creepy is when you add 3rd party networks or cross domain cookies.
As a real world example, I recently downloaded a white paper on an SEO website, and then visited one of the tools website (HubSpot). About an hour after I left hubspot.com I received an email from a sales rep at HubSpot. I had not logged in, nor provided this information to HubSpot. Where did they get it? From a cookie, likely the SEO website is on the same network. While somewhat intrusive and out of the blue, this is the future of marketing and I understand this is going to be the norm.
At the end of the day Congress, Senators and Journalists are trying to call out Facebook for a “devious practice of tracking users,” when it’s a lack of understanding that they are really shouting about. Facebook’s tracking of offsite users is likely more advance than I’ve outlined here, but is still founded in the same principles – collect data to server more relevant ads and experiences.