The indelible digital footprint associated with your internet usage is worth gold to others. Around the world, online advertisers are expected to spend around $117 Billion this year alone. And it’s Google that dominating the online advertising market with revenues in the order of $39 Billion, a third of the global spend.
The ability for online advertisers to charge a premium for highly targeted, real-time advertising aimed at specific individuals is currently made possible by the cookie — a tiny piece of data stored in a file on your PC, tablet or Smartphone that relates to your internet usage patterns.
But Google is considering ditching the cookie as a personal identifier, and developing their own, which would give them more control over the information. And advertisers would need to go through Google, instead of being able to collect the information themselves.
Lifting the lid on the cookie jar
Cookies are small files that are saved onto your PC or mobile device from the website’s server, without you typically being aware of it. They serve multiple purposes such as remembering your profile as you navigate around the various pages on a website, avoiding the need for you to re-enter all the information in your shopping cart every time you leave a page, remembering your language and other site preferences as well as potentially your login names and passwords.
But not all cookies are the same. There are exceptions to users having control over certain types of cookies. Flash cookies, for example, are immune to user controls, and have resulted in a number of privacy related U.S. lawsuits, such as the Del Vecchio v. Amazon case which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum late in 2012.
Cookies on your mobile phone
Every Apple mobile devices contain a unique device identifier (UDID) which is made up of a character string that identifies the device. Using the UDID, advertisers are able to track user’s usage patterns across multiple apps on the same device. Even if the mobile device were to be completely factory reset, with all data and apps wiped, the UDID would remain the same, allowing advertisers to still track your subsequent usage.
But Apple has been rejecting new apps or app updates that access UDIDs from May 2013, citing privacy concerns raised in the US Congress and elsewhere. This shut out the possibility of third party developers accessing the UDIDs for usage pattern analysis, although workarounds are already in play.
Given Google’s current dominance in the online advertising market, their plans for developing a proprietary category of online identifiers to replace third party cookies is already having repercussions in the marketplace. The effect would be to further increase Google’s already formidable market dominance.
Should Google be successful in the deployment of a de-facto global internet usage tracking standard, that will help them comprehensively dominate the global online advertising market.
Google’s approach to product development is based on the philosophy of fast deployment of the minimum viable product. Google then has users test and help in product development through a Darwinian evolutionary process which has been shown to be, for the most part, highly effective. Combined with the commercial imperative for global domination of the online advertising market, this will help ensure Google’s developments in this area will likely continue at a rapid pace.
Privacy – what privacy?
You only have to install Firefox’s Collusion add-on to a Firefox browser and visit a few internet sites to get some insight as to who is looking over your shoulder as you browse the internet. This powerful visualisation window offers insights into your digital footprint that has been for the most part invisible.
Internet and privacy should not be used in the same sentence. Even internet services specifically setup for the purposes of enforcing internet anonymity are not immune to interception. The powerful internet anonymity service TOR has been intercepted. TOR has been cited as the medium of choice for terrorists and illegal activities, hence the specific interest by security agencies. A recent PRISM expose which revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) is using specialised cookies to interrogate TOR browsers should therefore come as no surprise.
Given the combined influences of the speed of technological development, the push by service providers and advertisers alike to monetise your internet usage together with the increasing concerns of privacy advocated and regulators and individuals alike, suggests that the evolutionary path of the humble cookie will be a hotly contested and uncertain one.
Rob Livingstone is a fellow of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at University of Technology, Sydney.