The data you give away online

When you go online, who is tracking your behaviour and why?
13 July 2015

Interview with 

Dr Richard Mortier, University of Cambridge


Every time you go online you are providing information: your clicking and shoppingInside the Internet habits and preferences. But how is this data used and who is using it? Richard Mortier works for the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, and has been peering behind the curtain of this digital tracking, as he explained to Kat Arney...

 Richard - A very common case for example is, just as you're browsing websites, you'll find that most websites, when you pull them to your browser and the browser shows them to you are running pieces of code in the background. Those pieces code are pulling other information in from other websites to show you advertising. Maybe they send back analytics and statistics about who's doing things. As you start to stitch together some of the sites that you visit, they'll be using many of the same ad tracking networks and the same systems. And so, some of these systems are able to start stitching together a picture of where you visited on the web and what your interests are as a result. I think the concern is not so much that advertising is a bad thing because it can be a good thing. Although it can have surprising side effects. There's one case of a teenager in America who was sent some advertising tool from a supermarket chain called Target and the material was to do with items that they wished to buy them to do with being pregnant. Her father didn't know that she was pregnant and so, gave the supermarket manager apparently an info about it and had to apologize a few days later because it turned out that she was. And so, it became something as a surprise to them. So, even with just simple advertising, it can sometimes be surprising what behaviour is revealed through this. It's often revealed in a way that you can't control, you don't anticipate, and you don't understand.

Kat - I mean, that's my next question. When I go online, say if people are going, okay, you've bought this, you've got that. It looks like you're going on holiday to Bradford which is where I'm going soon. How long is this information stored for and what sort of companies are we talking about storing it?

Richard - I think that's part of the problem is, that it's not entirely clear to the people who the information concerns. So, information is typically going to be stored for a very long time. There are some evidence that for example, Facebook is starting to show you things in your timeline from several years previously and in many people's cases this came as an unwelcoming surprise. They saw evidence of relationships that had long since finished for example. It can be stored for a long time and it can be shared and used in ways that are not always made obvious to you.

Kat - We're going to have a quick look at a website now. I mean, what sort of things are we talking about here? Is there any way to find out who is looking at my data? Let's have a look what we've got here. We've got a newspaper website.

Richard - So, in this web browser, I've installed a couple of plug-ins that allow you to see some of these transactions taking place. So, if for example, I reload this web page, it's a popular Sunday newspaper.

Kat - Other popular Sunday newspapers are available...

Richard - Indeed. We'll see some information popping up shortly on the right hand side of the screen. So, you can see the number of sites that are being blocked here.

Kat - 36...

Richard - 38, I think now, 47, 60. So, there's many, many sites are being contacted as a result of having loaded just this front page of this particular website.

Kat - Okay. This is just one page of a website and there's now - we're up to like 60 websites. Are these all just advertisers, just trying to get hold of my data?

Richard - Some of them will be advertising, some will be analytics, some might be - there's a Facebook site in there, there's Google page in there. So, there's a variety of different companies that are being contacted. None of which was necessarily obvious to anybody just visiting this page.

Kat - I've not heard of most of those companies. How can I stop them finding out about my stuff? I don't want all these unpronounceable companies looking at my data.

Richard - So, you can do that by installing some - commonly, you install things into browsers or you use private browsing mode and so on. It can become a little bit intrusive because you start to find that bits of the experience you expect on the web stop working when you start blocking all of these for example. Another one, a plug-in that's showing here is showing the linkages between some of these advertising sites. So, the fact that you go to two completely separate websites there, you visited 2 sites. It's telling me that it's being connected with 108 other sites as a result and some of those sites are shared between the two sites actually visited. So, you can start to see some of the linkages that it created in this ecosystem.

Kat - Now, that could be concerning if you don't really want one website know another website thinks of you.

Richard - For example, yeah. I think it gets even worse when you start to throw other things in the mix. So, some of the ability for example of Google with all the Gmail accounts that people have to scan the contents of your email and see some of that. If you're sending your Ocado shopping online receipts to a Gmail account then all that information is in there as well. So, there's a lot of information that you put out out there and without necessarily understanding the implications of all these different companies having access to some of it or being able to pull it together in different ways.

Kat - Is there anything that people can do? You've mentioned some blockers and things like that. If you don't want people to see what you're up to online or track your data, is there much awareness that people can block this?

Richard - I think well, there are certainly blockers out there that you can install into a number of the common browsers. I know some people or some colleagues for example would go to the extent of not having mobile phones so they can't be tracked because they believe...

Kat - That's their excuse.

Richard - There's a spectrum of responses you can have to this. Some people just don't care. Maybe they don't see they need to. I think the key thing here is to get a sort of understanding and start to see some of this revealed a bit more so we understand it and respond to it more appropriately.

Kat - I was going to say, is there any kind of regulation of this? 108 third party websites have seen the two sites that we've just taken a look at. Does anyone know about that? Is anyone overseeing this? I assume they're not just UK sites.

Richard - No. There is a regulation that applies to this. It's not an area I'm particularly expert in, but certainly, the European Union and the Data Protection Act for example that has been applied in the UK as a result of their legislation in the EU tries to control how some of these information has to be treated - what can be done to, what can't be done to. But there's a constant sort of evolution here where the technology moves quickly and lawmakers try and keep up with it essentially. So, I think it's quite an active area at the moment. It's evolving quite quickly.

Kat - Very briefly, what do you see as the future of this? I mean, in a good light.

Richard - I think that it's about giving people, the people who want to, the knobs that they can turn in order to control this experience, and allowing people to share what they want to share and not to share what they don't want to share. At the moment, it's just happening outside of your control essentially and so, there's really too much going on without you being aware of it. Ideally, it would be up to you to make decisions about what you wanted to have happened here. If that meant that you didn't care and you wanted everybody to see everything you did, that would be fine. And if you've meant that you wanted to hide everything, that would be okay too.


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