The cash crop harvest of online data

There’s a common occurrence that’s been causing some anxiety for anyone who spends a substantial amount of time online. Why do we get served digital ads that seem tailored to us based on conversations we’d had, both audibly and through texting? How do advertisers know exactly the types of products we want? And why do they seemingly chase us to the ends of the internet to get us to buy products?

The answer is simple: It works, and it’s extremely effective.

A handful of methods and strategies are used to collect data from users, but it’s all down to the habits of the user, collected either via device, web browser or saved information on the Facebook, Apple or Google accounts people use to log into almost every website, program, or app. The devices we use, such as smartphones, or smart home devices like the Amazon Alexa or Google Homes can also listen to our conversations and collect relevant data from those as well.

There are some secure options, such as using a VPN to mask your personal information or using private browsers and search engines such as those offered by Duck Duck Go that promote their products as the alternatives that won’t collect your data and allow you to browse anonymously. But that won’t stop you from using the popular apps, video streaming and social media platforms that have become part of our daily lives.

“I didn’t sign anything! What they’re doing is a clear breach of my rights and privacy!”

Sorry to say, but that’s incorrect.

When was the last time you read the entire 15 to 20-page user agreement for a new device or new social network account? Everything regarding data collection for the purposes of advertising are outlined in each agreement for these devices and services. If you go through and don’t agree with the terms and conditions of use, your options are to not use the device or service. There are very few exceptions that will let you simply opt out.

Advertisers can create campaigns and deliver them to curated audiences using data such as location, travel habits, hobbies and marital status to name a myriad of growing options. One of the most effective methods is known as retargeting. If you’ve visited a website and viewed a specific product, that information can be used to advertise the product on future advertising in order to get the user to reconsider.

Not all data is available to advertisers, depending on regional legislation or restrictions. As an example, in Canada most advertising platforms won’t allow targeting demographics based on individual salary or household income. But a smart advertiser will find creative solutions to sort out who they’re targeting. Using interests and products already purchased by high income users. Someone such as a 19 year-old student who works part time for minimum wage usually isn’t going to the golf course on the weekends driving a brand-new Mercedes.

A comforting piece of information is that the data collected is anonymous. You can’t log in and view the browsing history of your cousin Amanda, but you are able to see that she’s obsessed with every true crime show on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Facebook isn’t posting the stats of everything they’ve caught her watching, but she is posting about every episode and sharing memes from fan groups that she’s publicly a member.

The simple fact is, we share too much of ourselves online for any real privacy.

The only way to avoid your data being collected and used in targeted advertising is to throw your phone into a river and build a log cabin in the woods away from your iPad and Smart TV, but that would make it very difficult to watch and post memes about the second season of Squid Game.