Uh-Oh! How the Hell Did Google Know That About Me?!

Stalking, spying, and stealing contacts. Enter the scary world of online marketing that lets Google know that your dress is so last-season!


A few weeks ago, I went looking for a new pair of jeans online. After browsing a few sites, I couldn’t make up my mind and gave up. So far, so indecisive. But then a funny thing happened. Over the next week, I started to notice online ads for that exact pair of jeans everywhere—when I read the news, as I scrolled through blogs... even while shopping on other websites. I didn’t need more temptation to shop, but what could I do? Stalker-ish Internet ads are more ubiquitous than Miley Cyrus meme. Still if, like me, you’re starting to wonder if anything is private anymore, read on to find out exactly how you can stop leaving your electronic footprint all over the web.


The how and the why

Do you know the square or banner adverts that sit at the top of every webpage? It’s accurate to say that they know you. Commonly known as targeting or remarketing ads, “they target your interests based on your web history and network activity,” explains Dali Kaafar, Principal Researcher and Research Leader at IT research centre NICTA, Australia. But how exactly do they work? Well, there are a few different methods, yet most commonly they use cookies to collect your data. Cookies, are small, unique files that are saved to your computer whenever you visit a website—they help that site recognise you if you’ve been there before. But often these cookies stay on your computer, tracking you long after you’ve left the site. Then, clever advertising networks use that information to try to figure out exactly the sort of adverts that are likely to appeal to you. And they are everywhere, too. “It’s estimated there are around 15 to 20 different entities tracking you per page for every popular website you visit,” says Kaafar. Creepy, huh?


Defence mechanisms

Just ask Kiran*, 29. After deciding to start a family, she noticed her research had created a hotbed of online ads for fertility clinics in her local area. While tracking doesn’t bother her when she’s researching, say, holiday destinations, “the fact that details of my searching are actually tracked and sold bothers me for personal things,” she says. Thankfully, for people like Kiran, it is possible to tone down the tracking. “Turning off third party cookies in your browser does limit some of the external trackings,” reveals Nick Savvides, senior principal systems engineer at Symantec. He also suggests enabling the ‘do not track’ mode in your browser’s privacy settings, or opening up a new window in private browsing mode (incognito mode for Chrome) for extra secrecy. And if you find all adverts annoying? Download an ad-blocking tool such as NoScript, Ghostery or BetterPrivacy. If you are super-paranoid about data collection, it’s possible to hide your IP address (an identification number given to your computer or device by your Internet service provider) with software such as TOR, which allows you to surf anonymously. But don’t be too worried. “There is some ability to track [through your IP address], but there isn’t that much valuable information a marketer can take from it,” says Savvides. In fact, the most effective method of cutting out tracking is also the simplest: clearing your history after each surfing session and deleting any cookies.


The other kind of FB stalking

Now for the bad news: while it may be possible to fool Google, Facebook is a trickier beast. Nikita*, 27, found this out the hard way when her status changed from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’ last year. “When dating websites started to appear, I found it quite offensive and somewhat degrading,” she says. “I can’t even go on Facebook without being reminded that I’m single!” Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot you can do to stop the adverts. “The terms and conditions for social media ask you to hand over access to your information as a trade for accessing their platforms,” says Savvides. Kaafar adds, “Facebook is probably abusing this, but this is their business model—and people agreed to be on it.”

Don’t despair, though. There are encrypting tools in development, such as the Android app Yahut, which will potentially allow you to share data on social media privately. In the meantime, keeping a regular eye on your social media privacy settings is a wise move, as is disabling any Facebook apps that you no longer use.


Smartphone? Smart tracking

The humble smartphone app is another advertising trap to be wary of. “A big problem with mobile phones is the over-privileged of apps—they often ask for more data than they actually need,” warns Kaafar. So be sure to check your phone’s privacy settings for any access to your personal data that’s unnecessary. “A photo app shouldn’t have access to your microphone, for example,” explains Savvides. Lastly, be mindful of allowing apps access to your contact list—it’s an easy way for companies to find new people to add to their directories. Hello there, irritating marketing calls. And if all else fails? You may just need to accept we live in an advertising-driven world. We may not always like them, but those targeted ads can have their benefits. If it wasn’t for that promo e-mail, I might not have scored those jeans at 20 per cent off... Oops!