That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles

Data points pointing to a figure of a person.

What follows is a transcript of a speech that I gave at the 28 October 2020 Skagit Valley Speakers Toastmasters meeting. During this speech, my computer froze. The screen was locked but I could still see many of my notes on the screen. I was uncertain whether others could still hear me. I continued my speech until the computer automatically restarted. Once reconnected to the meeting, I was able to continue the speech.

Your cookie jar can tell information about you. In your cookie jar, you may not have any peanut butter cookies. Or any that contain nuts, for that matter. Perhaps you have a nut allergy. If your cookies are made without flour, it may indicate a gluten intolerance.
If you really, really like chocolate; double-chocolate chip fudge cookies are in your jar.

Alas, these little hand-held treats are not the cookies I am referring to. Instead, I am referring to the cookies found on your computer/phone/tablet from surfing the web. These are small phantom files that contain information about your web browsing.

You are for sale.

Say, for example, while at home in Burlington one evening, you get out your new iPhone 12 and Google for 'heal pain'. You quickly skim some articles that give hints as to what the problem may be and some phantom remedies. Next, you visit Amazon to make a purchase of some insoles with arch support that are not 'fugly' and a home pedicure kit. Next, you visit Zappos to look at some shoes because you want some new shoes. You find some and add them to your cart. Some of the clothes you saw caught your eye so you added them to your cart also. Not really satisfied with what you found, you leave Zappos and pop over to Pinterest to see if you can get any other ideas.

It's been 15-minutes so you pop into Facebook. Scrolling through your feed, you take one of those quizzes that is supposed to indicate who you are based on what month you were born and your favorite color. After that, you follow a link to a BuzzFeed article that only Children of the '90's would understand. Then you 'like' some post about a Kardashian and share it on your timeline. #KeepingUp. You 'love' a post by a friend who just did a gender reveal and make a comment about 'someday'.

Have you ever wondered why you get certain ads on the websites you visit or in your social media feeds? When you Google for something or search for an item on Amazon, and other sites, this data is tracked in these phantom cookies. These cookies help to provide a phantom profile of who you likely are.

These cookies contain information about what pages you've visited, what you searched for, dates/times visited, what website you came from, where you are located - geolocation, the type of device used, the browser, and other information.

Some of these cookies are able to be read by other websites. However, it is not always the website itself that is reading the information. Rather, it is the advertising network that the website uses. They ad networks have highly refined algorithms that can serve ads that you will most likely associate with using the information from the cookies and overlaying it with other online information - such as median home values, land use types, and other key characteristic indicators.

From our example, the phantom profile of this user is likely:

  1. Female
    • home pedicure
    • shoes
    • clothing
    • Pinterest
    • gender reveal
  2. In her 20's
    • BuzzFeed article
  3. Single
    • 'someday' comment
  4. Spends time on her feet with poorly supporting shoes during the day
    • Heal pain
    • Shoe shopping
    • Surfing/shopping in the evening
  5. Likes fashion
    • Shoes
    • Clothing
    • Pinterest
    • Kardashian
  6. Has a certain amount of disposable income
    • iPhone 12
    • Neighborhood where living - single-family homes with average home price $550,000.

Likely advertisers that may show up on websites or social media feeds include StitchFix, Sephora - possibly indicating nearest store in Bellingham, Pop Sockets or other phone accessories, and Plantar Fasciitis remedies. Within a couple of days, will get an email from Zappos about the phantom items left in her cart with a convenient link to continue her purchase. Will end up getting a couple emails weeks later from Amazon showing shoes, shoe accessories, and/or beauty products.

The advertising network was able to provide a fairly clear profile of the user to their advertisers. If the user clicks on an ad, that, too, goes into a cookie that further refines the characteristics of the user.

Now, this is not something new. When I worked for a newspaper years ago, audits were done as to the circulation that helped to identify ages, genders, income levels, household sizes, occupations and more of the people who subscribed. That information was used to set advertising rates and sell advertising to businesses who would likely target the subscribers.

Most major grocery stores have some type of 'rewards' or 'loyalty' card that collects information about your purchases. Even Costco knows about everything you purchase through them.
Swipe your card or enter your phone number and the items in the your purchase are associated with you. These stores are able to use this information to better determine what items to stock in their stores, when certain inventory needs to be refreshed, what to advertise, etc.

The Nielsen family has been watching our TV viewing habits for a very long time. As more and more people are cutting the cord and streaming, the networks are able to get better information about viewing habits and types of shows watched. Think Netflix or Hulu with their 'you might also like' feature.

So, what can you do?

  1. Lock down your web browser to prevent cross-site tracking and block third-party cookies.
  2. Routinely clear out your cache and cookies. Better yet, if your browser supports it, clear your browsing history on exit. If your browser doesn't support it, consider using a browser that does - Firefox.
  3. Use browser plug-ins that block advertising and other trackers.
  4. Don't use Google to search. Google tracks your searches and, therefore, you and uses this information to target ads to you; selling you. Instead, use DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo does not track your searches or use cookies.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how the cookie crumbles.

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