The social impact of online tracking

While working with a client on a recent project, they asked us what might be the potential social impacts of the tracking tags we were setting up for their website. As something we hadn't really considered too much before, we did a bit of a deep dive on the question. What we found was firstly very useful in helping us to make our own decisions about various tracking tools, and also a lesson on how when we're working with clients we can actually help each other to do things better and do better things.

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, concern about data privacy and 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? First let's get an understanding of what these tools are and how they work.

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. 

Background

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).

So what are these tracking tools and how do they work? Some common examples of tracking tools are listed below explaining whether they use first or third-party cookies, and how they work. This information was gathered from each platform’s support info and/or blog sites during May 2021. Please check each platform for updates or further details.

Google Analytics

First-Party Cookies

Google Analytics is a free web analytics tool that collects user behaviour data on your website and helps you analyse traffic. It uses first-party cookies to measure user-interactions on websites. How it works is by placing a block of JavaScript code on the pages of your website. By default, it should not collect any personally identifiable information (PII), but you must be careful - for example when customising your configuration, integrating third-party platforms, using URL parameters, or recording site search terms - not to send any PII to the platform

Google Ads

TBC

Google Ads is an online advertising platform for search and display advertising across Google and third-party platforms. How it has worked, is by using cookies - including third party cookies - “to target advertising based on what’s relevant to a user, to improve reporting on campaign performance, and to avoid showing ads the user has already seen.” However, in 2020 it was announced that Google Chrome would ban the use of third-party cookies, saying they are working on more private, first-party ways of targeting ads

Google Search Console

Query and Click Logs (No Cookies)

Search Console is a free tool that provides information on how Google crawls, indexes, and serves websites, and can be used to understand how your site is performing in Google Search, what people are searching for, and what content may be of interest. How it works is with “query and click, or selection, logs” (Search Engine Journal). As far as we understand, this tool does not use cookies, but instead first-party data logs of the search terms people enter into their own platform, Google. 

Google Tag Manager

Configuration dependent

Google Tag Manager is a tool for managing tracking related codes in one place. How it works is by placing a section of JavaScript code on your website. Once installed you can easily manage and update further tracking codes via the Tag Manager interface. By default GTM does not use cookies, however, it is most likely the tracking codes you deploy via GTM - for example, Google Analytics - will include some form of cookies. 

Facebook Pixel

First and Third-Party Cookies

The Facebook pixel is a tracking tool that “allows you to measure the effectiveness of your advertising by understanding the actions people take on your website.” How it works is by installing a piece of code on your website which then places and triggers “cookies to track users as they interact with your business both on and off of Facebook and Instagram.” The Facebook pixel uses both first and third-party cookies.

Now that we have an understanding of how these tracking tools work, let's consider how they might have an impact on our people and communities. 

Challenges

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, so then how about the issue of being tracked across the web?

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. That seems to cover first-party cookies okay, but 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

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