Behavioral Tracking? What’s That?

The Digital Age is one where we like to post about everything we do. We Tweet, we Snapchat, we Instagram, we Facebook, and we tag our locations. We not only show who we are with and what we are doing, but we say where we are. We do this without thinking, but what we don’t realize is how many people are tracking what we do. Gary Kovacs, former CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, is a technologist that directed the development of Firefox. This man knows about the internet. In 2012, he gave a TED Talk entitled “Tracking Our Online Trackers” that was extremely informative about the reality of who is watching our online habits.

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He provides extremely interesting statistics about the reality of our digital world. Over 30% of the world’s population has access to the internet at the same time. That is over 2.5 billion people. This is both an incredibly beautiful and incredibly disturbing statement. What an amazing world we live in that we can connect with so many people around the world, yet those people could be watching us and collecting information about us. With these facts in mind, it makes it not hard to believe that the young generation is spending more than eight hours a day online.

This vast amount of time and people have led to the creation of an entirely new industry called behavioral tracking (or targeting). This is the industry that connects everything you search, like, post, view, etc. on the internet to give you things like book and music recommendations, friend suggestions, and advertisements. While this is a rather new industry, the net revenue of the top Behavioral Tracking companies has totaled over $39,000,000,000. What an incredible amount of money for an industry that lives almost completely undetected.

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Source: amazon.com

 Even retailers use this type tracking in order to provide better customer service to their shoppers. As I was watching this TED Talk, I recalled a story I read about this idea in a book entitled “The Power of Habit.” While this book by Charles Duhigg focused on how changing your habits can change your life, he discussed a story about how Target uses their own tracking algorithm that once figured out that a high school girl was pregnant before her father did. Target uses this algorithm to provide customers with coupons to anticipate their needs and life stages in order to serve them better. In an article in Forbes regarding this situation, Kashmir Hill explains that “Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

I know that I personally have gotten Target coupons and thought “How convenient! I love that brand!” but in actuality, they know everything about me and it’s no coincidence at all. In that situation, the high school girl bought prenatal vitamins, specific toiletries, etc. and Target picked up on the trend. So, Target began to send her coupons for baby clothes and other necessities. Her father angrily called Target and accused them of suggesting his daughter become pregnant. He later followed up and apologized since she was, in fact, pregnant.

target
Source: forbes.com

Now, Target is not the only company to use behavioral tracking. How do you think Google, Facebook, and Amazon have ads of those shoes you were just looking at online? This is not an uncommon behavior, and while it is our privacy we are sacrificing, it is not reasonable to simply give up the internet because of behavioral tracking. My solution is awareness. We need to be aware of what we are sacrificing when we enter our information into certain websites and when we shop at certain stores. None of these companies are hiding about the fact that they do this, people just don’t know and then get upset when they think “Big Brother” is spying on them. We need to be conscious of how much of ourselves we are giving to others and must be realistic about the consequences that may come from that. We live in the Digital Age, and we must be aware of what that truly means.

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