The social impact of online tracking

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These days most people agree on the importance of measurement and reporting to make informed business decisions and improve our outcomes. Understanding user behaviour and product performance are essential if we’re to innovate and deliver solutions that solve real-world challenges. But with the use of technologies like third-party cookies and concern about data privacy, the social impact of online tracking has been mounting - most notably with cases like Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 U.S. election. So what might be the potential impact on our people and communities? 

Disclaimer: This article was researched and written to help ourselves and our clients understand and make decisions about the use of tracking tech. It should not be considered legal advice. 


Cookies are "small files that websites send to your device that the sites then use to monitor you and remember certain information about you" (Vox, 2019). Despite often negative media attention, these cookies are not always bad. Often they're used to improve your experience with websites, for example by remembering your login details, language or layout preferences, or what's in your shopping cart (Mozilla, 2018). That's "first-party" cookies. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, work with websites to insert additional tracking methods – such as their own cookies and web beacons – to record what you read, click and visit online” (Internet Health Report, 2018).

The terms "first" of "third" party are used to describe who has collected the information - whether it was collected directly by your business, or through a third party. First party cookies therefore allow the website you're on to collect data for their own use. Whereas third-party cookies collect data that may be used by a company with no relationship to the visitor or customer (Hubspot, 2021).


In our research into the potential social impact of online tracking, we have found three main issues that come up over and over again which we have grouped into three categories - sensitive content, third-party tracking, and data brokers.

Sensitive content

Due to the way third party cookies work, where you can be targeted, repeatedly, with ad content based on your interests, previous online behaviour, or personal demographics, there is the risk that people can be served ads, many times, containing content to which they may be sensitive. On the flip side, people could also be excluded from opportunities. 

Quartz shares some examples in relation to personal finance and job opportunities. “Targeting ads with Lookalike Audiences is pretty much what it sounds like... If the list it [the algorithm] is given is full of white men, it could very well show ads only to a bunch of other white men.” 

“It’s different than selling shirts or underwear,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, counsel at Outten & Golden in Washington and one of the negotiators in the Facebook settlement. “You’re selling credit or jobs or housing, which determine peoples’ outcomes in our society in many ways, and their ability to prosper.” - The fight against discriminatory financial ads on Facebook, Quartz

In response to criticisms like this, Facebook has implemented “Special Ad Categories” to restrict targeting for ads about social issues, elections or politics. If you are advertising in a Special Ad Category, targeting options are limited or in some cases completely disabled. For example, targeting by age or gender is unavailable. Google has also implemented similar ad targeting restrictions. This should help improve the landscape with online advertising, but is still a issue to consider. 

Third-party tracking

Third-party cookies can continue to track users across the web after they have left the platform on which the cookie was first deployed. "This data collection, which is invisible to users, reveals more about you than where you’ve been. It creates a picture of everything about you from your preferences to your identity. Advertisers use that data to target you with ads and content across the Web and on your smartphone" (Mozilla, 2018). Of course, we have most likely accepted the use of these cookies when we quickly dismiss those pesky cookie notices, but with the breadth and depth of information some cookies are able to capture about us, it is increasingly difficult to accept that this is considered gaining “user consent”. 

In one example, protestors at a George Floyd march had no idea “a tech company was using location data harvested from their cellphones to predict their race, age, and gender and where they lived… two weeks later, that company, Mobilewalla, released a report titled "George Floyd Protester Demographics: Insights Across 4 Major US Cities." 

Websites are required to display a cookie consent notice to visitors. And Apple’s latest iOS 14 update has gone one step further. It includes app tracking transparency for privacy - letting “you control which apps are allowed to track your activity across other companies' apps and websites for ads or sharing with data brokers”. This may seem a great solution for people with Apple products, but still not something which should be barred by the tech you can afford. 

Data Brokers

Lastly, Data brokers are “entities that collect information about consumers and then sell that data ... to other data brokers, companies, and/or individuals. These data brokers do not have a direct relationship with the people they're collecting data on, so most people aren't even aware that the data is even being collected” (Vice). Furthermore, they “are able to merge anonymized online data with personally identifiable information to build a surprisingly detailed profile of you.” 

This article by Fast Company visualises the expanse of consumer data and the analytics industry. According to TechCrunch, “this data isn’t just for advertising. Immigration authorities have bought access to users’ location data to help catch the undocumented”, as one example. 

The problem is law is often slow to catch up with technology. So in a socially conscious world, where does that leave businesses who want to make socially conscious decisions about their tech?

Wrapping up

Reading into the details of these tools might feel like an overwhelming exercise, but with information and working together you can start to consider what tools are right for your business. Noone can be across every area at one time, but if we're open to learning we can all help each other to do better things and use tools like these in a way that “creates a vibrant, healthy internet” and benefits everyone. A good place to start - have you considered what impact cookies might have in your business?

Further resources

also good.